Nuclear weapons policy looks set to feature as a political issue in the 2015 general election. A broad consensus on UK nuclear weapons policy since of the end of the Cold War amongst the party leaderships of the three main Westminster parties has been disturbed by the debate on whether and, if so, how to replace the current Trident nuclear weapons system. This has been exacerbated by a coalition government in which the Liberal Democrats have broken ranks and moved towards active consideration of a smaller, cheaper replacement for Trident that does not entail continuous deployment of nuclear weapons at sea. The Conservative leadership remains committed to a like-for-like replacement of the current system in line with the policy adopted by the Blair government in its 2006 White Paper on The Future of the United Kingdom’s Nuclear Deterrent. Labour policy remains unclear. An internal debate on whether to stick with the policy adopted in 2006 or move closer towards a Liberal Democrat position is underway.
The official line from the shadow defence team is that it is awaiting publication of the Trident Alternatives Study and the BASIC Trident Commission report. It is highly unlikely that any of the main Westminster political parties will enter the next election on manifesto commitment to complete nuclear disarmament. The debate is further complicated by the outcome of the referendum on Scottish independence in September 2014 and the implications of a ‘yes’ vote for continued basing of Trident at the Clyde Naval Base.
Public opinion remains deeply divided on nuclear weapons and choices around Trident replacement. Over twenty opinion polls have been conducted since 2005 when the debate on Trident replacement began to gather momentum. Polls suggest that opinion has moved towards relinquishing nuclear weapons after Trident when given a simple yes/no choice. This is generally strengthened when respondents are given a cost of £20-25 billion for the capital costs of replacing Trident starting with a new fleet of ballistic missile submarines.
Opinion is split more evenly three ways when a third option of a smaller, cheaper replacement is introduced. Data, here, suggest the electorate is broadly in favour of keeping nuclear weapons in some form, but against a like-for-like replacement of the current system. The polls also present a plurality of views on whether nuclear weapons are necessary for UK security, whether they make the UK a safer place to live, whether the UK should retain nuclear weapons as long as other states have them, and the circumstances under which the UK should use its nuclear weapons. The electorate tends to value the security seen to derive from continued possession of nuclear weapons whilst recognising the dangers of possession to national and global security. It is also reluctant to support use of nuclear weapons even if the UK is subject to a nuclear attack.
The indeterminacy of public opinion gives all three main Westminster parties political space to rethink UK nuclear weapons policy after Trident or recommit to current policy. Polls suggest the electoral consequences of policy change or stasis are unlikely to be decisive. However, the polls also demonstrate that men, those in the older age groups and Conservative voters are more likely to favour replacing Trident and are more inclined to think nuclear weapons make the UK safer. Policy change to a smaller, cheaper, ‘dealerted’ system or nuclear disarmament could put some votes at risk in these cohorts. This is tempered by polls that demonstrate the relatively low salience of nuclear weapons policy in UK politics and polls that demonstrate greater support for policy change over stasis amongst those for whom nuclear weapons policy is an issue that could shape their vote.
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