The Conservative-led government of austerity Britain is facing the sacrifice of its sacred cow of high military spending—to preserve the even more precious elephant in the room: the UK’s ‘independent’ nuclear weapon.
As UK public spending continues to be slashed, the defence lobby is out in force at Westminster, seeking similar protection to that afforded to budgets for health and international development. The British army could be cut to a complement not seen for 250 years. The repeated pledge by the prime minister, David Cameron, to oppose any further troop cuts rings hollow in light of a report this week from Malcolm Chalmers of the Royal United Services Institute. Even with a ring-fenced budget for the Ministry of Defence—highly unlikely given the current public-spending environment—troop numbers would probably have to fall by 15,000 over the next five years.
We will get a sense of parliamentary opinion this week when the House of Commons debates defence spending today. The defence lobby is likely to be pleased with the result but the vote will have no direct consequence and little impact on party leaderships. Public opinion generally shows a weak attachment to defence spending, one that dissipates further when faced with the challenging opportunity costs arising elsewhere.
So when the pressure is on, why does the UK’s ‘independent nuclear deterrent’ appear to enjoy absolute protection from cuts, when it will soon take up 10% of the defence budget and around 35% of the procurement budget? The answer can be found in the many myths surrounding the system.
For 65 years the British debate over nuclear weapons has been dominated by the narrative that they are necessary for national security and power on the international stage, implying that to advocate disarmament is to demonstrate a lack of backbone. It is a simple but highly potent manoeuvre—elections have been won and lost on it. It means that those defending the status quo swagger with confidence around Westminster, knowing that, no matter the veracity of the arguments they deploy, they have the protection of a simple, psychological weapon that will prevail over any rational critique from opponents dismissed as idealistic dream-weavers.
When the then Labour prime minister, Tony Blair, prematurely decided in 2006 to kick-start the successor to the current submarine-based nuclear-weapons system, Trident, he was hoping for a traditional, black-and-white battle that would cement his legacy as the leader of centre-right ‘New’ Labour, permanently burying the unilateral-disarmament wing of the Labour Party which had been blamed for losing the 1983 and 1987 general elections. What he got was a debate in Parliament focused more on his unnecessary and expensive rush, ending up dependent on the Conservative opposition to ensure his motion was passed.
Today our attention is being directed towards Russia’s actions in Ukraine, through scaremongering that suggests that the Baltic states—formal NATO allies—are next on its expansionist list of targets. Surely now, of all moments, it would be irrational for the British to show signs of ‘weakness’ in their attachment to the nuclear faith, just as the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, is issuing blatant nuclear threats.
And it may be irrational, yes, if one believes that British nuclear weapons have any relevance at all to Putin’s calculations in the unfolding crisis. But nuclear weapons offer incredible threats that could only have relevance to end-of-the-world scenarios.
The UK acquired and has retained its nuclear weapons overwhelmingly because of domestic political considerations and the manipulation of historical narratives, rather than out of any genuine international strategy. The official story of UK identity is heavily influenced, in the older generation at least, by the 1940 experience when ‘Britain stood alone’ against the Nazis—and it is no coincidence that Putin has been compared to Hitler or more ancient despots. The fact that there is no rational or credible scenario in which Britain would alone face an overwhelming invasion of Europe by Russia does not seem to dent the hold this fear has over many.
But in recent weeks the ground in the domestic debate has shifted unexpectedly, signalling that those close to the ‘deterrence’ lobby are beginning to lose their confidence. This was illustrated by a pre-emptive strike in the tabloid Sun newspaper last week by an unnamed colleague in the shadow cabinet of an adviser close to the Labour leader, Ed Miliband. This personal attack explicitly sought to neutralise any potential efforts to change the party’s commitment to like-for-like replacement of Trident.
The possible influence of the anti-nuclear Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) in the government coalition after May’s general election is surely occupying minds. Could the SNP, perhaps in concert with a new Liberal Democrat leadership, successfully apply pressure to delay the project further? (The base for Trident is at Faslane on the Clyde.)
The SNP’s position is robustly supported by many party activists: with its undeniable electoral advantage in Scotland over the historically dominant Labour Party since last year’s independence referendum, it has the credibility to hold Labour’s feet to the fire on an issue of strong symbolism, which supports its continued push for Scottish independence. It is ironic that Trident, justified on the basis of its protection of ‘national security’, should be possibly the biggest threat to the integrity of the UK union.
The current Liberal Democrat leadership has attempted to develop a middle ground position: while supporting the Trident programme with fewer submarines, the party would take them off patrol. This policy appears to have won few (but probably lost fewer) votes. Its weakness lies in being a compromise appeal in a debate traditionally characterised by polarity.
It would however have some merit if the UK was serious in its claim to deploy a minimum nuclear deterrent, and it could achieve considerable savings. BASIC’s Trident Commission was roundly criticised for failing to challenge head-on the UK’s attachment to nuclear weapons, but it estimated that a move away from continuous patrolling could save between £500m and £1 billion a year throughout the life of the project and generate far more significant savings in the next decade.
A more radical proposal was recently published by Centre Forum. This advocated using the dual-role stealth aircraft that Britain is buying from the US. This system, less capable but able to deliver a minimum credible nuclear deterrent, would use naval and air force dual-role systems already in the defence-procurement plan and still save several billions for other priorities. Moving to a dual-use system would also achieve significant savings in running costs. This could be a highly attractive middle ground for those not yet ready to contemplate a non-nuclear future.
There are many myths in Britain’s nuclear debate but ultimately the fact that there are options, amid a hesitancy to rush into major expenditure, looks set to play an important role in challenging post-election negotiations. BASIC is looking to highlight those choices and to ensure that the Trident renewal programme is reviewed with the same demanding rigour other government spending will be experiencing in the coming years.