Britain’s political parties and their nuclear postures

In 2016, for only the second time in Britain’s history as a nuclear power, Parliament is expected to vote to decide the future of the United Kingdom’s strategic nuclear deterrent. Britain’s nuclear policy is heavily influenced by the ideological positions of Britain’s three dominant political parties. Each of the parties has a spread of opinion within them.

The Conservative Party leadership supports like-for-like replacement, and enjoys strong majority support within the party for this position. This position is consistent with the party’s position throughout Britain’s history as a nuclear-armed nation. On 4 December 2006, David Cameron addressed the House of Commons in support of Tony Blair’s decision to renew and replace the Trident system, and led his party’s MPs in voting in favor of the Labour government’s plans for renewal on 14 March 2007.

After his election as Prime Minister in May 2010, the coalition government published the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), which included a firm commitment to maintain, renew and replace the Trident system. He articulated his position in an article published in the Telegraph on 3 April 2013, asserting that Continuous-at-Sea Deterrence (CASD) based on dedicated ballistic missile submarines, provides the most credible deterrent for the most reasonable price. In the event that the party achieves an outright majority at the 2015 general election, it would be safe to assume that a Conservative government would seek to fully renew the current system, extending the life of the Trident missiles and their warheads, replacing Britain’s current fleet of SSBNs, and embarking upon the construction of new missiles and warheads to ensure that Britain’s CASD posture remains credible into the middle of the century. If this were possible with three submarines, the party would consider this option.

Their partners in government, the Liberal Democrats, have a rather different position. Throughout the period prior to the party’s formation in 1988, both the Liberal Party and the Social Democratic Party were supportive of disarmament. Since then, various leaders, MPs and party members have held competing beliefs which have complicated the party’s approach to nuclear weapons. The party’s current leader, Nick Clegg, is avowedly in favor of multilateral disarmament, and it was his personal decision to enter the 2010 General Election on a policy of opposing like-for-like replacement of Trident. After the election, the party secured a government commitment to a review of alternatives. Published in July 2013 under the leadership of Danny Alexander MP, Liberal Democrat Chief Secretary to the Treasury, the Trident Alternatives Review (TAR) considers three alternatives to the present system but does not come to a finite conclusion. The Autumn 2013 Liberal Democrat Party Conference committed the party to a posture termed ‘preserved deterrence’. This would entail ending CASD, removing all warheads from patrolling submarines and reducing the number of SSBNs in the fleet to three or fewer. In the long-term, the party would reduce Britain’s total stockpile of nuclear weapons and construct a class of dual-capable submarines. This stance was laid out in Liberal Democrat Policy Paper 112, Defending the Future – UK Defence in the 21st Century.

The strongest opposition within the Liberal Democrat party to this position comes from those in favor of moving away from a nuclear deterrent entirely. At the September conference, 228 members voted in favor of the scrapping of Trident and the cancellation of its successor, as compared to 322 who approved the ‘preserved deterrence’ posture.

Although it was a Labour Prime Minister who instigated the development of Britain’s first independent atomic weapon, and a Labour government which was responsible for the transition to CASD, there is strong support within the party to abandon nuclear weapons. However, since the late 1980s Labour leadership has been strongly committed to maintaining an independent credible nuclear deterrent, and remains so today.

It was Tony Blair who instigated the current process. In December 2006 his government published the defence white paper entitled The Future of the United Kingdom’s Nuclear Deterrent, describing its commitment to the like-for-like replacement of the current system, a decision endorsed by Parliament in March 2007. Since his election to the party leadership in September 2010, Ed Miliband has made only one public statement on the subject, indicating his desire to see Trident and any future British deterrent scrutinised alongside all other aspects of defence expenditure in light of Britain’s defence needs and the changing economic climate. Subsequent to this, the party’s position on Trident replacement has been to await the publication of the TAR and BASIC’s Trident Commission report. It is clear that the Party will go into the next election with a policy of maintaining a credible nuclear deterrent.

In March 2013, then Shadow Secretary of State for Defence Jim Murphy stated, having reportedly reached agreement with Mr. Miliband on the issue, that Labour is “not a unilateralist party and [is] not about to become a unilateralist party”. Shadow Armed Forces Minister Kevan Jones went further when he wrote that “Labour is committed to maintaining a continuous at sea deterrent” due to the system’s unique ability to provide a “constant and credible guarantee” of Britain’s security, though it’s unclear if this position has support from Miliband. Mr. Murphy’s replacement, Vernon Coaker, has given no indication that he will oversee any changes to this stance; sources close to Ed Miliband assert that no changes to party policy have been made since the October reshuffle.

That said, there are still those within the Labour party that do not support the renewal and like-for-like replacement of the current system. In 2007, Labour MPs voted against the renewal of the current system, and there have been numerous calls from Labour Party activists to see the issue debated at the next party conference.

The positions of the three main parties at Westminster are both complex in their origins and divergent in their substance. In the event of a Conservative government after 2015, it is reasonable to expect them to initiate a process with the expectation of full renewal and replacement of the Trident system, and the maintenance of a CASD posture based on ballistic missile submarines into the mid-21st century. However, the particular posture of Britain’s nuclear arsenal under a government involving either the Liberal Democrats or the Labour Party may yet be more uncertain after the next election, with policies influenced by the reconciliation of internal divisions and possible inter-party negotiations and Parliamentary bargaining, with the need to secure what they judge to be adequate levels of conventional and nuclear capabilities within the spending limits imposed by strained economic circumstances.


These are the views of the author and do not necessary reflect those of BASIC.

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