Liberal Democrat Conference 2013

Policy Motion: Defending the Future – UK Defense in the 21st Century – When the Liberal Democrats were out of government, their party conferences were lively affairs with policies being debated passionately, with a little less concern than the two other main parties over issues of achievability and credibility of such policies. Ideology was less tempered by practicality. Poetry, not prose.

To their credit, the same passion that existed outside of government continues within it. The issue of UK nuclear defence policy and the ongoing question of the renewal of Trident then is something that could be seen as a test of what has been a great liberal cause – nuclear disarmament.

Sir Nick Harvey, the Lib Dem MP who served as a Defence Minister and co-ordinated the first year of the coalition government’s Trident Alternatives Review, described the UK’s current nuclear posture as being stuck in the Cold War. The National Security Assessment he said had concluded that the current situation of continual at sea deterrence (CASD) was taking to the high seas and aiming weapons of mass destruction at – well – no one in particular.

Essentially, three positions were debated:

1) Ending CASD, taking nuclear warheads off active patrol and limiting the number of submarines to no more than three (the principal proposal, dubbed a preserved deterrent, a term coined by the government’s Trident Alternatives Review);

2) Scrapping the Successor programme but retaining the capability of reconstituting a nuclear deterrent in a short period, presumably using dual-capable delivery platforms such as aircraft or attack submarines (a virtual deterrent); and,

3) Full disarmament and dismantlement of all related facilities.

In true Liberal Democrat fashion, there was passionate debate on all sides (including fully renewing the current system), and the first option was chosen. Cost was not a central issue. Chief Treasury to the Secretary Danny Alexander pointed out the principal proposal would not result in a reduction of spending in the next parliament, and modest savings overall. Instead, the key words he used to justify it were “Achievable and Deliverable”.

The UK’s obligations to the Non-Proliferation Treaty came up against future ‘what if’ concerns around the possible emergence of new nuclear threats. Retaining a preserved deterrent nuclear posture was designed for the ‘what if’: the UK would credibly preserve the capability to deploy submarines with warheads around the clock.

This vote is significant, not least because the Liberal Democrats could find themselves in another coalition government after the next election. A Labour partner could contain elements sympathetic to the sort of reduced readiness proposed in this motion, and agree to further delay to the renewal programme, and a significantly-reduced posture.


-The opinions expressed belong to those of the author.

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