The Implications of the Coalition's Decision to Postpone Signing the Trident Renewal Contracts until after the Next Election
By Julian Lewis
Critical Reaction – 21 October 2010
As the results came in, on that first Friday in May 2015, history was seen to be repeating itself with uncanny precision. True, Labour had added twenty seats to its total. True, the Liberals had paid for collusion with the Conservatives. Yet, once again, the Party which had trailed in third commanded the balance of power.
Lib Dem options had been limited back in 2010. Now the main Parties were more evenly balanced, the bidding could begin. Dismal defeat in the AV referendum had lessened Liberal appetites for a tilt at PR; but all was not lost – there was still the target of Trident.
When asked to endorse the 2010 Coalition, Conservative MPs were promised by their leaders that the Liberals would accept the renewal of Trident. Instead, to the anger of many and the delight of CND, the vital vote authorising contracts with industry – the so-called ‘main gate’ – had been postponed in the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review. This was, of course, the same Review from which Trident had specifically been excluded.
The Prime Minister, when challenged, declared his “optimism” that the next Parliament would contain more than enough supporters of the nuclear deterrent. He was sure its renewal would be safe despite the delay, and it was easy to see why. Labour had turned its back on CND in 1991, when Gerald Kaufman was Shadow Foreign Secretary. Two huge election defeats had convinced both him and Neil Kinnock that unilateralism must go.
When the design stage of Trident was approved in 2007, Tony Blair relied upon Conservative support to overrule the objections of the Liberal Democrats and a minority of Leftists on his own benches. It was clear that most Labour and Conservative MPs backed the renewal programme.
Thus, both main Parties gave manifesto pledges to the electorate in 2015 that they stood for the continuation of the deterrent in general and Trident in particular. Only the Lib Dems (who achieved an unimpressive 16 percent of the vote) promised to cancel the programme. With eighty percent of the seats in Parliament held by Labour and the Conservatives, there could be little doubt that the deterrent was safe ... or could there?
Supporters of Trident, in Parliament and the country, reckoned without the corrupting effect of hung Parliaments and third-Party blackmail. The Lib-Dem Left, furious at the effect of Coalition cuts on their national support, were determined to have their pound of flesh – this time – and to ingratiate themselves with the voters they had lost. In 2010, the Liberals had won undeserved concessions from Conservatives by inventing a Labour ‘offer’ of AV-without-a-referendum in return for their support.
Now the trick could be played in reverse. So desperate were the Conservatives to cling to power, according to the Liberals, that everything was on offer except abandonment of Trident. Yet, this above all was what they wanted to restore their fortunes on the Left. Sure enough, Ed Miliband took the bait. If Trident was the price of a Lib-Lab Pact, then it surely was a price worth paying.
When the feasibility studies were completed of Lib-Dem ‘alternative’ plans for nuclear cruise missiles on Astute-class submarines, it was abundantly clear that this would be no alternative at all. Such a system was more expensive, less effective, would put the submarines at risk and might start World War Three by accident, as informed critics had stated all along.
... And so it came to pass, following an election in which only one Party – the one that came third – had pledged to abandon Trident, that the UK nuclear deterrent came to an end.
During the period 2025 to 2055 (the intended lifespan of the Trident successor system), new threats arose which were very different from the boots-on-the-ground counter-insurgency scenarios obsessing the Army in 2010. Serious modern states, some with nuclear arsenals, confronted the United Kingdom once again. In that dire situation, there was not much time to regret the manner in which her deterrent had been dismantled, by indirect means and with no democratic mandate.
In fact – if you discounted the four-minute warning – there was actually no time at all.
Dr Lewis was Shadow Armed Forces Minister between 2002 and 2010. For an examination of the military arguments for Trident, see his essay: ‘Nuclear Disarmament versus Peace in the 21st Century’, published by the Royal United Services Institute.