Today, UK Defence Secretary Philip Hammond is at the Faslane nuclear base in Scotland to announce another contract (worth £350m) for BAE Systems, part of the £3bn of projects that will be spent on development and initial manufacture on the current like-for-like replacement before the final decision is taken on renewal in 2016. He is taking the opportunity to highlight the government’s commitment to maintaining a continuous submarine patrol with nuclear weapons into the indefinite future, and the investment in the local Scottish economy that such spending creates. He hopes that this will play positively in winning support amongst Scots against independence in the run-up to the vote in Autumn 2014.
News reports imply that this announcement makes a mockery of the government’s own nuclear alternatives review currently under way and to be received by the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister early next year (probably end January). It was always the plan to follow the twin-track of review whilst sinking major investment into the development of the SSBN option. The key question to be asked at this point is whether that strategy, agreed in the first few days of the Coalition government in May 2010, was ever credible in considering alternatives in 2016, given the psychological and political challenge implied of ditching major sunk-cost investments (£3bn) in the current favoured option. Whilst the Liberal Democrats have invested some political capital in the review and in pursuing alternatives, they may have to work hard to counter the perception that this may only have been an empty gesture.
But three years is a long time in politics, particularly in a period of austerity and transition. Today’s announcement may well show the more confident side of the Conservative Party in seeking public support in the UK and in Scotland in particular asserting support for Trident renewal, but it is not clear that this will succeed. Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond appears confident on this issue that he carries public opinion along with him, and trenchant remarks from Hammond could easily backfire. And while the conclusions of the government’s alternatives review are unlikely to be decisive or revolutionary, they could yet become another way-station alongside others such as BASIC’s Trident Commission (likely to report now in the summer of 2013), in the evolution of the UK’s nuclear debate as we move toward 2016.
These are the views of the author.