Trident replacement: Who cares?

Last month, the independent think-tank BASIC made an interesting contribution to the debate on Trident replacement. They released a report, Trident in UK Politics and Public Opinion, summarising the top-line results from every national survey about British nukes in recent years.

The main finding- that the public are ambivalent on Trident replacement- has been demonstrated elsewhere, albeit less comprehensively (such as by the CND here and my own dip into the issue here).

However, where BASIC contribute something new is in significantly considering the question of issue salience: the extent to which people, particularly voters, consider nuclear weapons an important issue.

The death of an issue

Every month, Ipsos MORI conduct polls inviting people to answer a) what they see as the most important issue facing Brtain today and b) what they see as other important issues facing Britain. Respondents are unprompted and any response mentioning nuclear weapons is counted in a broad category of ‘Nuclear weapons/Nuclear war/Disarmament’.

The below graph presents the percentage of respondents to the monthly polls who cited nuclear weapons as ‘an important issue facing Britain’:


Souce: BASIC/ Ipsos MORI

As is clear, there has been a significant drop in issue salience. For most of the 1980s, nuclear weapons were cited as one of the top four ‘important’ issues. In 1983, for example, nuclear weapons were approximately joint second most mentioned, alongside inflation.

However, through most of the 1990s and 2000s, nuclear weapons were mentioned by less than 5 per cent of respondents as ‘important’ (lower than the NHS, unemployment, the EU and almost every major area of domestic policy). The only spike in ‘importance’ in the last twenty years coincides with the beginning of the Iraq War.

At the ballot box

Earlier this year, the University of York commissioned a series of polls relating to nuclear weapons. In one, people were asked which issues (from a list of options) would help sway their voting choices in the 2015 General Election. Here are the results:


Souce: BASIC/ University of York

1 in 8 respondents cited nuclear weapons as likely to have an effect on their vote. While this is higher in ‘importance’ than shown by the Ipsos MORI polls (perhaps to do with the presentation of the questions), it is still fairly low.

This finding is consonant with other surveys exploring the relevance of specific policy areas to voting, which consistently present defence (in general) as being less likely to influence voting as economic management, the environment, tax and sundry other issues.

The meaning of this

In their report, BASIC suggest that the above findings may imply there is little public pressure for a change in government policy. While this may be true in the present, it may not be the case when the ageing, eventually obsolete, Trident system requires replacement.

It is highly unlikely the public would care to spend approximately £100 billion replacing and maintaining a type of weaponry they are indifferent to. Indeed, split-sample surveys suggest there is a significant drop in support for Trident replacement when the question is accompanied by opportunity cost arguments.

For example, in 2010, 63 per cent of survey respondents favoured scrapping nuclear weapons for deficit reduction purposes.

So, dear readers, one may reasonably argue that: if Labour win the next General Election and cancel the Trident replacement, they could save the UK a huge sum of money and few would hold it against them.

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