The efforts to question Ed Miliband’s commitment to maintain a credible independent nuclear deterrent have failed to land with the electorate. But it would be a serious error to think that is down to the repeated assurances that a Labour government will follow through with full renewal of the system. Despite the assumption often made by journalists that the measure of any serious politician is their solid commitments to Trident renewal, continuous at sea deterrence, or indeed 2% GDP spend on defence (do you ever hear the opposite?), the evidence suggests that at best the vast majority of the electorate simply does not relate to these priorities, even when they understand what they mean.
Trident may well have featured heavily in recent weeks in the campaign, but it has been dominated by positional politics and its symbolism: who (really) sits where on the issue and what does it mean about their character, will the SNP hold a whip hand, and can we trust Labour to stick to its promises? We’ve yet to have a proper public debate on the core nuclear issues of how we best tackle and reduce the fearsome global nuclear dangers we face, how to relate to states and groups willing to threaten extreme measures to challenge the current international order, or even the utility of nuclear weapons in the twenty-first century.
The vast majority of the world’s governments meet once every five years to review the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, and they kick off this week in New York for four weeks. The international regime is in crisis largely because the nuclear-armed states are modernizing their arsenals (the UK among them) and have failed to meet their promises from last time (in 2010). Hopes of progress on the disarmament agenda were already weakened even before the crisis with Russia emerged over Ukraine. Now it seems that states are as committed to their nuclear arsenals as ever. If we really believe that our nuclear weapons bring us long-term security in an uncertain world, how can we deny those weapons to the majority of states indefinitely? The legitimacy of the non-proliferation regime depends upon credible commitments to disarmament. But the UK and the handful of other nuclear armed states now demonstrate no intention of following through with their commitments to disarm, even when in the case of the UK we belong to the strongest military alliance ever seen and where the strength of our relationship with the United States is unquestioned.
Most of those engaged in this current election debate have never even thought of these questions, and care little for them, let alone have any coherent responses. They certainly have not considered what our particular responsibilities are toward the international community as a nuclear-armed state. The closest we come to any serious consideration over the Trident renewal project is around whether this country in general, and the MoD in particular, can really afford to renew Trident. It could end up gutting the rest of the armed forces. It’s almost as if the project were thought up by some group of pacifists with the strategic objective of taking Britain out of any future international interventions, for good.
The symbolism around our thinking when it comes to nuclear weapons has always clouded our judgment. We have attached to them meaning around sovereignty, global status and national security, and ascribed to them extraordinary powers of protection. Political parties that commit themselves to investing billions in nuclear weapons show their commitment to this meaning and their willingness to do what is necessary and expedient, symbolism strengthened when this involves sacrifice or moral compromise.
There are three clear reasons why a future government (Labour or Conservative-led) will attempt to renew Trident as planned. They will know there are significant dangers in policy U-turns (think LibDem commitments to oppose student fees), and these will be higher if there are question marks (as there likely will be) over their legitimacy as a minority government. There is passionate commitment to the renewal of Trident entrenched in both parties, even if that passion is limited in both to a small minority, that would kick up a tremendous fuss at the slightest whiff of a change of policy, even if key members of the leadership understand the downsides of renewal for more important policy objectives. But perhaps most important of all, it would be seen as weakness if the political leadership succumbed to external pressure from smaller parties with less credibility and electoral support. This last is all the vogue at present in the Conservative leadership’s attempt to suggest that the SNP might hold a future Labour government to ransom in this area. But the nationalists’ power in this area will be far more constrained than often suggested; they cannot be seen to bring down a Labour government.
But none of these reasons are conclusive, and will come under severe pressure. The technical dangers to the Trident renewal project of a review and further delay in the project may not be as potent as often assumed, and the potential policy benefits huge. There is nothing magical about the need to make a final decision by 2016 – future submarine construction can be speeded up with sufficient investment when it’s available, and we have no clear idea about the reliability of the current Trident submarines as they reach the late 2020s. It’s a question of risk and the level of commitment to the need to have a British submarine out on patrol at all times. If we believe in the essential need of nuclear deterrence and had faith in the strategic commitments of NATO then our need for continuous patrolling would be on an alliance-wide basis: deterrence of nuclear attack would be achieved in combination of all NATO deployed nuclear systems.
Can the next government really impoverish the armed forces to pay for an unusable and terrifying weapon system on constant patrol when they know there are clear alternatives?
The election discussion has been under-developed, and public opinion on the issue superficial, and therefore fickle. For the next government to feel obliged to stick indefinitely to statements made without reference to the big picture issues related to global security would be the height of irresponsible governance.
And a new government can turn this into an advantage. If it were to immediately order a (real) review (with real terms of reference focused on Britain’s national security interests), it would quickly find changes to the project that could come to be seen as a yardstick for reconnecting with the priorities of the country. If it were a Labour government it could be seen as an essential symbol of the party’s escape from the 1990s battle between old and new Labour that gave birth to the Iraq disaster. In other words, it could show Ed Miliband recognising that politics is about open debate upon the concerns and hopes of an emerging next generation focused on the future and unburdened from the neuroses the past.