Trident renewal a done deal?

Yet more rifts appear to be growing in the government over the renewal of the Trident nuclear deterrent. Politics Reporter Lauren Boyd asks if it is really necessary.

Conservative Defence Secretary Phillip Hammond last week announced £350m of spending on designs for a like-for-like replacement of the Trident nuclear deterrent. Unsurprisingly, Nick Clegg responded angrily, accusing Hammond of “jumping the gun” and saying the coalition agreement states that no decision is to be made on Trident until 2016. Whoever is in power come 2016 will then be under pressure to opt for a like-for-like Trident replacement if money has already been spent on designs.

Clegg believes that Trident is not the best option for a nuclear deterrent, because it was designed with the “strategic purpose of flattening Moscow”. The Liberal Democrats instead commissioned a review of more appropriate alternatives, lead by the Lib Dem Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander. They will be particularly annoyed that Hammond has made this decision before this review has been published. The review is looking into cheaper alternatives to Trident, such as missiles launched from land, aircraft or ships rather than submarines. Another alternative would be storing warheads and only putting them on missiles when they are actually necessary. Claiming Trident is good for the economy and ignoring cheaper alternatives goes against the Conservatives’ own belief that austerity is an economic necessity.

This will further damage relations in the Liberal Democrat–Conservative coalition. The Lib Dems have failed to achieve their main priorities of electoral and House of Lords reform, so the coalition has arguably been a poor deal for them. There have been recent disputes over other key policies; for example, the spat within the Department for Energy and Climate Change, with Ed Davey berating Conservative John Hayes for claiming the UK has no need for more wind farms. The Lib Dems also plan to vote with Labour against reducing the size of the Commons.

Despite this, the Trident issue will not be enough to dissolve the coalition. If the Lib Dems maintain such a strong anti-nuclear position, they may gain pacifist votes at the next election, as they did following the Iraq war. It could be a vote-winner too for Labour, were they to adopt an anti-Trident position. According to Tony Blair’s biography, he only renewed Trident to avoid the “downgrading of our status as a nation”. Labour may now reassess that it would prefer to save the £84.5 billion a Trident replacement is estimated to cost  between now and 2062.

Hammond used his announcement to make a weak argument against Scottish independence. Hammond claimed the Faslane complex on the Firth of Clyde employs 6,500 people working on the Trident submarines, and that a plan to move more nuclear attack submarines to the Clyde would create 1,500 more jobs. Official MoD figures suggest the Faslane renovation would actually only create 560 civilian jobs. Whether or not Hammond exaggerated the figure, nobody could argue that building nuclear warheads was the most cost-effective and ethical way to create jobs. If the Conservatives want to use job creation to keep Scotland in the UK, perhaps they should invest more in green energy or affordable housing. The Scottish National Party have suggested including a ban on nuclear weapons in a constitution for an independent Scotland. This anti-nuclear stance could increase the amount of ‘yes’ votes for Scottish independence.

Some people have questioned whether a nuclear deterrent is even necessary, given that the last government admitted that “no state has the intent and capability” of launching a nuclear attack against the UK. Although only eight countries have nuclear weapons, the countries without them do not consider themselves perpetually at risk of a nuclear attack. Japan is the only country to have been the victim of a nuclear attack, yet doesn’t feel compelled to have a nuclear deterrent. In fact, the Japanese constitution has forbidden the production of nuclear weapons since 1967.

If Trident were vital to the UK’s defence, the military would probably come out in favour of it. General Hugh Beach, however, said that money would be better spent on equipment. It seems unusual that the government would not be interested in cheaper alternatives when it has had to cut troop numbers from 102,000 to 82,000 by 2020. At a time when equipment budgets and troop numbers are being cut, spending such a large amount of money on something of dubious value seems like a poor allocation of public money.

In the words of former Chief of Defence staff Lord Carver: “Trident, what the bloody hell is it for?”

Lauren Boyd

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