Once again Trident emerges as a key flag issue that establishes where candidates for the Labour leadership election stand. Andy Burnham has perhaps the most difficult task, being deeply sceptical about nuclear weapons personally but claiming that current international instability, and particularly Russian threats to European security, means it is not now the time for Britain to consider abandoning the weapons. This was much the same conclusion reached by the BASIC Trident Commission last year.
This of course begs the question of when the right time is. This week marks the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, and Britain stands poised to make the final investment decision on a new generation of submarines that could be in the water until the late 2060s – 120 years after Hiroshima. There will always be a risk that a strategic threat could emerge to the UK that it could not deter alone by conventional means – does this mean it will forever possess nuclear weapons? And what does this say to other states about the effectiveness of their national security without nuclear weapons, or our faith in the Alliances we are a member of?
The Trident Commission acknowledged that Britain’s possession of nuclear weapons brings particular responsibility to kick-start far more serious multilateral disarmament processes. The ‘P5 Process’ between the nuclear weapon states has been disappointing, a focus for strong criticism earlier this year at the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference. The Russian government has acted in an irresponsible manner in making active nuclear threats, flying its bombers in a dangerously provocative manner, and in using underhand tactics in Ukraine. But we have to acknowledge that NATO members have on several occasions engaged in very similar actions. Rather than point the finger the current situation requires us to engage with greater vigour in diplomacy and arms control initiatives. So far Britain and France have stayed out of such talks and arrangements – perhaps it is time for Britain to join the verification arrangements under new START negotiated in 2010?
We should also acknowledge the fact that historically, Britain’s moves to abandon delivery systems and reduce its arsenal and readiness have been unilateral, in response to general improvements in the security environment. Britain has never sought to match another nuclear weapon state, but rather has focused on the idea of minimum deterrence – to possess the capability of delivering sufficient terrible impacts as to deter any potential enemy. This has been a dynamic assessment, with steady reductions as time has passed.
The Trident Commission also confirmed its belief that Britain had a special responsibility and to consider how it might better coordinate with its Alliance partners to reduce the dependency on existing arsenals. We exist in a strong Alliance, the most powerful the world has ever seen. Shared European perceptions that the Russians are moving on an aggressive trajectory has strengthened the bonds of the Alliance. Do we really need three independent national nuclear deterrents with a continuous at sea patrolling posture, when there are gaps in other dimensions of Alliance capabilities, exacerbated by austerity? Osborne’s recent decision to guarantee 2% GDP spend on defence does not solve the problem for the UK – tough decisions are needed, and independent capabilities could be a luxury when the cohesion of the Alliance is at stake.
There remain options for the UK that do not involve capitulation to Putin, and strong commitment to NATO does not require the full renewal of Trident on a continuous patrol posture. Abandoning the posture but maintaining the capability could achieve significant savings for both capital and running costs, and facilitate a further delay in the capital programme, with big savings and further potential for consideration. The Liberal Democrats are likely to be debating another option at their conference in late September – upgraded ‘smart’ targeted modern bombs (based on the emerging US B61-12 design) flown by F35 stealth aircraft may offer a far cheaper, adequate deterrent. This does not require a black-and-white decision, for or against.
The deeper trouble for Andy Burnham is that Trident possesses a symbolism in the domestic political environment, used as a yardstick to measure a politician’s patriotism and ability to over-ride moral squeamishness in the national interest. Unfortunately, when objects or issues take on symbolism beyond their intrinsic value this can often lead to distortions in how we think about them.
The rise of Jeremy Corbyn’s popularity in the last month has been variously attributed to leftish tendencies within the Union movement, entryism by both left and right into the Labour Party, and the nativity of younger supporters. The more convincing explanation lies in the disaffection with the subtle and opaque ambiguities of our politicians, and their adoption of policies on the basis that they bring ‘credibility’ and speak to the middle ground (often determined by a handful of media opinion-shapers with their own agenda), rather than speaking their mid and offering leadership involving a two-way communication. Many people respect Corbyn’s perspective, even when they do not agree with it.
One of the core problems of Ed Miliband’s leadership was that many people were not able to understand or trust his policy positioning. His popularity was at its highest when standing up for principled positions – against the Murdoch empire or when opposing military intervention in Syria. But this was undermined by an attempt at populism and capturing the middle ground that alienated some and left others wondering what he would do once elected. The Trident issue was one of the most potent in this regard.
If Andy Burnham is to avoid a similar fate, he will need to establish a credible position on Trident that honestly reflects his scepticism around the utility of nuclear weapons and the damage our possessing them has on the credibility of the non-proliferation regime, whilst reflecting the need for the Alliance to effectively contain the worst excesses of the Putin Administration. Options are out there – it’s time they were discussed.