Scrapping the Trident missile system would put our nation at risk. But would Ed Miliband do it to seal a Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition, asks Julian Lewis.
Telegraph Online – 22 September 2013
Since the United Kingdom became a nuclear power, successive governments have maintained a continuous strategic deterrent. If the Liberal Democrats have their way, this will end and the country will no longer be capable of instant retaliation to a nuclear attack. Under plans voted for at the Liberal Democrat conference in Glasgow last week, the four-boat ballistic missile submarine fleet would be reduced to three, or more probably two, making the restoration of a continuous deterrent unlikely, or more probably impossible.
The remaining submarines would go to sea unarmed, thus providing no deterrent at all. While they are at sea, all their nuclear warheads will be safely locked up at the Coulport depot ashore, ready for redeployment at times of "heightened tension".
In the Alice-in-Wonderland world of Liberal Democrat strategy, we are expected to believe six impossible things not just before breakfast but indefinitely:
- First, that we shall have plenty of warning of an impending attack.
- Secondly, that any submarine in port will not immediately be targeted.
- Thirdly, that any submarine at sea will have time to return and re-arm.
- Fourthly, that any returning submarine will not be attacked as soon as it reaches Faslane.
- Fifthly, that the Coulport depot will not instantly be obliterated with all our nuclear warheads still inside it.
- Finally, that deploying the deterrent only in the midst of a crisis will lessen the danger rather than increasing it.
None of these assertions is believable by anyone who takes the threat of nuclear aggression seriously. Unfortunately, the Liberal Democrats do not. In March 2007, they voted together with the Labour left against renewing the Trident submarine fleet. Thanks to Conservative support, the Blair government nevertheless won the vote by 409 votes to 161. If there were a vote in Parliament now to sign the ‘main gate’ contracts for these successor submarines, it would also be overwhelmingly carried.
Until 2010, no party in government rejected the view that, as long as other countries possess nuclear weapons, Britain must retain the ability to retaliate if attacked. Fortunately, the Liberals were not in power during the 1980s, when Paddy Ashdown rightly described them, in the CND magazine Sanity, as
"the only British political party that has always opposed a British nuclear deterrent".
If the Liberals were unilateralist at the height of the Soviet threat, it is hardly surprising that they continue to detest the deterrent in the post-cold war world.
Yet, it is dangerous for them to be too open about this: under Foot and Kinnock, Labour paid a terrible electoral price for its one-sided nuclear disarmament stance in 1983 and 1987. In the Trident renewal debate in 2007, Gerald Kaufman memorably reminded his party that he dubbed the 1983 Labour manifesto
"the longest suicide note in history".
"It is one thing to revisit the scene of the crime; it is quite another to revisit the scene of the suicide".
For this reason, the Liberals shun the honesty of the CND position. Both during and after the Cold War years, poll after poll showed two-thirds of the British people supporting the retention of a nuclear deterrent as long as other countries possess nuclear weapons, and only one-quarter favouring unilateral nuclear disarmament. Instead, they recommend a policy which flouts all the rules of deterrence and which invites an aggressor to mount a devastating first-strike, before our impotent submarines can be reunited with their nuclear warheads.
How much does this matter, given that the Conservative and Labour front benches are united in support of renewing the Trident fleet? Quite a lot, actually, as was demonstrated in October 2010 when it was suddenly announced that, instead of the 'main gate' contracts being signed in this Parliament, putting the future of the deterrent beyond doubt, they would be delayed until after the next general election. It has been estimated that extending the life of the existing submarines, to enable this delay, cost the country £1.4 billion.
If the Liberal Democrats hold the balance of power in 2015, will they stand by their commitment to a toothless and vulnerable Trident successor, or will they come out in their true unilateralist colours – demanding its scrapping altogether as part of the price of coalition? What would Ed Miliband do, if scrapping this single weapons system were all that stood between him and the keys to 10 Downing Street?
As for the Conservatives, it is true that David Cameron has constantly reiterated his commitment to Trident and, most importantly, to maintaining continuous at-sea deterrence. Yet, he too would be vulnerable to Liberal Democrat blackmail on the issue, if the outcome of the election gave them the choice of coalition with either main party.
The solution is obvious. The 'main gate' decision should be brought forward and the contracts should be signed irrevocably before 2015. If signing them for all four submarines now is felt to break the spirit of the 2010 Coalition Agreement, then sign them just for the first two or three. After all, even the Liberal Democrats now claim to want a 2 or 3-boat Trident fleet. Should we not take them at their word?
Only if their real agenda is to scrap Trident completely, as the price of a future coalition, can they possibly object to such a step? It is, after all, in the national interest.
Dr Lewis was the Conservative Party’s defence spokesman on the nuclear deterrent between 2002 and 2010. He is the author of Changing Direction: British Military Planning for Post-war Strategic Defence, 1942-1947. His essay, Nuclear Disarmament versus Peace in the 21st Century, was awarded the RUSI Trench Gascoigne Prize.