Trident: not as future-proof as our politicians like to pretend

The UK’s possession of nuclear weapons is often justified in terms of uncertainty about the future. However, developments at home and abroad may one day make the UK’s Trident weapons system politically (and legally) impossible.

The UK’s possession of nuclear weapons is often justified in terms of uncertainty about the future. However, developments at home and abroad may one day make the UK’s Trident weapons system politically (and legally) impossible

Over the years, governments have defended plans to replace the ageing Trident weapons system by reference to unspecified future threats.

In the foreword to a 2006 White Paper advocating the principle of Trident replacement, Tony Blair wrote:

“We believe that an independent British nuclear deterrent is an essential part of our insurance against the uncertainties and risks of the future.”

Similarly, in an interview with the Daily Mail, David Cameron said:

“How can anyone be confident that the global security environment will not change in the next 10 years? This is not the time to be letting our guard down.”

Despite these appeals to vagueness, the continuation and replacement of Trident is likely to face challenge on at least two fronts.

Firstly, Scotland does not seem to like nuclear weapons. The latest British Social Attitudes report shows at least the balance of opinion in Scotland is opposed to UK nukes. Plans to replace Trident, which assume its basing at a facility on the estuary of the River Clyde, will continue to be politically contentious in Scotland and may be impossible to accomplish in the event of another independence referendum (in, say, 10 to 20 years).

Secondly, many non-weapon states are impatient with our phallic exhibitionism. Last week, over 155 states released a statement expressing their ‘deep concern’ about the ‘the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons’.

These states are being encouraged by a group of NGOs, such as the ICRC, ICAN and Article 36, whom believe a treaty (similar to the cluster munitions ban) could be developed to outlaw nuclear weapons. Such a move would be tricky for the UK: a ban would not require the acquiescence of the nuclear-armed states but would have diplomatic, legal and political effects on them.

Despite its commitment to Trident replacement, Labour’s National Policy Forum (NPF) appears to acknowledge the possibility and even value of such change in International Humanitarian Law. In its latest (and last pre-election) report, the NPF stated that Labour:

“… recognises the success of past international bans on weapons of mass destruction such as landmines, cluster munitions, chemical and biological weapons. The Non-Proliferation Treaty Conference 2015 will be a key moment for a Labour Government to show leadership in achieving progress on global disarmament and anti-proliferation measures.”

These developments imply Trident or its successor will face challenge. The future, it seems, is uncertain.

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