After a calculated delay, the Conservative Party have today launched their 2015 General Election manifesto – ‘Strong leadership. A clear economic plan. A brighter, more secure future.’
The manifesto is divided up into seven broad sections with nuclear weapon and non-proliferation matters covered under: A Britain standing tall in the world; A stronger voice for our nation on the world stage; and, Keeping Britain safe.
2010 to now
The debate over the renewal of the UK’s strategic nuclear deterrent beyond the 2020s has been largely unchanged since the last Labour government published its White Paper, The Future of the United Kingdom’s Nuclear Deterrent in late 2006.
After David Cameron’s elevation to the role Prime Minister of the UK in May 2010, the newly formed Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition Government published the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) in October 2010 which contained its commitment to maintaining a continuous submarine-based deterrent. However, as part of the Coalition programme for government, it was agreed that the Liberal Democrats would continue to make the case for alternatives to a like-for-like replacement. ‘We will maintain Britain’s nuclear deterrent, and have agreed that the renewal of Trident should be scrutinised to ensure value for money. Liberal democrats will continue to make the case for alternatives. We will immediately play a strong role in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference, and press for continued progress on multilateral disarmament.’
As a result, in 2011 the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister jointly commissioned Cabinet Office officials to conduct a focused review (known as the Trident Alternatives Review) into alternative systems and postures. The study was overseen by Liberal Democrat ministers (first the former Liberal Democrat Defence Minister Sir Nick Harvey, and then Danny Alexander, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury).
In May 2011 the Trident Successor programme passed its ‘Initial Gate’ and is now in its assessment phase. A ‘Main Gate’ decision on the programme is scheduled for 2016.
The Conservative Party leadership has traditionally voiced support for a like-for-like replacement, and enjoys strong majority support within the party for this position. This policy position is broadly consistent with the party’s position throughout Britain’s history as a nuclear-armed nation. Representatives and senior spokespeople from the Conservative Party have repeatedly come out strongly to reaffirm their long-standing support for Trident, and belief in both the utility and symbolism of nuclear weapons. In July 2013, Philip Hammond, the former Defence Secretary, was quoted as saying: “Any suggestion the UK was ‘letting down’ its guard would send the wrong signal at a time when Iran was seeking to acquire nuclear weapons and other military powers, such as Russia, were spending billions on upgrading their military capability.”
More recently during the short campaign, Prime Minister David Cameron’s Party and his Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, described the Trident nuclear weapon system as the ‘ultimate guarantee of security against nuclear attack or nuclear blackmail’..
The 2015 manifesto
It has been reported that the manifesto was originally compiled by Jo Johnson, head of the No 10 policy unit and a minister of state, and was later re-written by Richard Parr.
In the 81 page 2015 Conservative Manifesto, the section ‘Keeping Britain safe’ on nuclear weapons policy states:
‘We will retain the Trident continuous at sea nuclear deterrent to provide the ultimate guarantee of our safety and build the new fleet of four Successor Ballistic Missile Submarines – securing thousands of highly-skilled engineering jobs in the UK.
‘We will work closely with our allies to continue to strengthen NATO – supporting its new multi-national rapid response force.’
It further states:
‘Later this year, we will hold a National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review to plan for the future.’
Elsewhere in the document it recognises the need to tackle nuclear proliferation: ‘We and our allies face major challenges: Islamist extremism, an aggressive Russia, economic uncertainty in the Eurozone, nuclear proliferation and infectious diseases’, ‘We will work with our partners to address threats to UK security, including the spread of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, pandemic diseases, the illegal drugs trade, piracy and organised crime’ and ‘We will: protect global security by helping to lead international efforts to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon; and work to ensure that North Korea ends its development of nuclear weapons.’
The 2015 Conservative Party manifesto positions on nuclear weapons is broadly consistent with previous policy statements and supports in particular a four submarine like-for-like replacement of the UK’s Trident nuclear weapon system. In this election there has been a strong emphasis placed by the Conservative Party on maintaining a Continuous-At-Sea-Deterrent (CASD) operation, an indication of loyalty to the status quo first popularised by Conservative back-bencher, Julian Lewis, since the last election. When launching the manifesto, Prime Minister Cameron said: “We’ve made the big choice to renew Trident. Not three submarines, but four, so it’s there 365 days a year”.
In comparison to this election manifesto, the 2010 manifesto (‘Invitation to join the Government of Britain’) stated:
‘Our Strategic Defence and Security Review will ensure that resources for our Armed Forces are matched to our foreign policy requirements. We support the decision to renew Britain’s submarine-based nuclear deterrent, based on the Trident missile system.’
It further committed to ‘play our part in efforts to make the world safer from the dangers of nuclear weapons and nuclear proliferation.’
Elsewhere in the document it stated: ‘..looking a decade or two ahead, powerful forces of economics and demography elsewhere in the world will make it harder for us to maintain our influence. All this in a world that is becoming more dangerous, where threats as diverse as state failure, international terrorism and new forms of warfare are being amplified by the impact of climate change and the spread of nuclear weapons technology’, ‘To ensure our global security further, we will: support concerted international efforts to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon; and play our part in efforts to make the world safer from the dangers of nuclear weapons and nuclear proliferation.’
Whilst the Conservative Party has effectively closed the door on any further negotiations on Britain’s only nuclear weapon system, there may be other opportunities for the UK to announce a bold vision, and demonstrate global leadership on disarmament and non-proliferation matters. The upcoming Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference will provide an ample opportunity for the UK to reinforce its commitment to the NPT regime which is under increasing international pressures. The backdrop of growing nuclear arsenals in South Asia coupled with nuclear threats from Russia and North Korea is damaging trust in the NPT regime and forcing Non-Nuclear Weapon States to press for more progress from the five recognised Nuclear Weapon States.
A returning Conservative-led government must recognise the importance of this once in five years opportunity, and ensure that the UK’s delegates attending the Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference recognise and address the frustration of the Non-Nuclear Weapon States at the perceived lack of progress on delivering the agreed 2010 NPT Action Plan.
You can read my report on the Labour Party’s 2015 General Election manifesto here.
Varinder S. Bola works as a Parliamentary Officer to the Nuclear Weapons Policy Liaison Group. He leads on policy engagement activities with UK Parliamentarians across parties, civil servants and other decision makers in the UK’s Trident nuclear weapon system renewal debate.