UK General Election Trident debate should go beyond symbolism

It was utterly predictable that Trident renewal would be used by the Conservatives to question Labour’s credibility and trustworthiness, and by the smaller anti-nuclear parties to distinguish themselves, but the profile of the issue in this election campaign has been far greater than anybody predicted. So far so good. Unfortunately, the debate has been limited to simplistic symbolism, rather than the bigger questions underlying the issue: questions like Britain’s role in the world; how we best tackle and reduce the fearsome global nuclear dangers we face; and how to relate to states and groups willing to threaten extreme measures to challenge the current international order.

Whilst they are indeed awesome and extremely dangerous ordinance, policy on nuclear weapons has at root always been about symbolism. We have attached to them meaning around sovereignty, global status and national security, and ascribe to them extraordinary properties that are then taken for granted. Though they are the most extreme offensive weapons, they are seen as the ultimate defensive means to protect us from bullies and strategic irrelevance; without them we are exposed. Parties that commit themselves to investing billions in nuclear weapons show their commitment to this meaning and to their willingness to do what is necessary and expedient. It’s a symbolism which is strengthened further when this involves sacrifice or moral compromise. In British politics this symbolism was forged in the late 1940s and then reinforced twice in previous debates in the 1960s and 1980s. Peace campaigners complain that this has not changed since the end of the Cold War, but the symbolism never had a direct linkage to that extraordinary confrontation or the existence of the Soviet Union in any case.

The Lib Dems have attempted to carve out the middle way on Trident, but they have failed to communicate effectively with the public on the issue. That’s partly because the middle ground has little natural support on a highly polarized issue, and partly because their current policy achieves little savings. There are credible middle-ground options that could result in major savings, and the Lib Dems would do well to consider these after the election by championing a full update of the Trident Alternatives Review in advance of the strategic defence and security review (SDSR).

The SNP and the smaller parties believe they are on a roll when it comes to Trident. They know that whilst there are few passionate votes on either side of the issue directly, it is a powerful symbol of opposition to a yawning gap between the priorities of the electorate and the Westminster elite (with frequent reference to its £100 billion price tag). Trident involves a nuclear priesthood with an archaic language and doctrine stuck in a past conflict that matters little to most of the electorate, protected from the ravages of austerity by a political class out of touch.

With the election campaign out of the way, will the SNP make abandoning Trident a condition of support for a Labour government? Beyond voting against Trident when the final decision on construction reaches a vote in the House (currently timed for early 2016), the SNP’s immediate ambitions are likely to be limited to a delay in the programme and they may well be satisfied with a commitment to review the project, at least in the post-election negotiations.

The doubt the Conservatives seek to land is that Labour cannot be trusted to make the difficult decisions necessary to govern with responsibility, a doubt magnified by Labour’s likely dependence on the Scottish nationalists after the election. So far the Conservatives have failed. Labour’s leadership believes that it has succeeded by playing ‘safe’ and giving assurances that it will replace the Trident fleet and maintain continuous patrolling. And there are three reasons why they are likely to attempt to stick to this position: they know there are dangers in policy U-turns (think Lib Dem commitments to oppose student fees); commitment to the renewal of Trident is entrenched in some parts of the party, even if key members of the leadership understand the downsides; and it would be seen as weakness if they succumbed to pressure from smaller parties with less credibility and electoral support.

But none of these reasons are conclusive, and the dangers of an evolution in the party’s policy based upon review and further delay in the project may not be as potent as often assumed. Indeed, if such an adaptation becomes seen as a yardstick for reconnecting with the priorities of the country it could be seen as an essential symbol of the party’s escape from the 1990s battle between old and new Labour that led to the Iraq disaster.

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