Trident: nuclear platitudes? No thanks

Credible nuclear and non-nuclear alternatives to continuous at-sea Trident nuclear submarines do exist. Most countries in the world do not have this form of defence

For more than half a century, British public life has had an existential argument about nuclear weapons. But it has rarely had a nuanced debate between different nuclear options. There is, of course, a big difference between the two. In the argument over nuclear weapons, there are two sides, each passionate and sincere. Each regards the other as the slaves of a dangerous doctrine. One, voice of a tradition that goes back to the pioneers of CND and to early 20th century pacifism, abhors all nuclear weapons. The other, voice of the postwar British governing class of all main parties, regards the maintenance of nuclear weapons as fundamental to Britain’s standing in a nuclearised world. It also fears that any dilution of the policy would be perilous internationally and domestically.

Occasionally, notably during the late-1950s and the mid-1980s, the existential argument has managed to command a place on the agenda of British party politics. For most of the postwar era, however, debate about the key decisions has been effectively red lined from politics altogether – stretching from the Attlee government’s secret decision to develop nuclear weapons in 1947 (not even announced to parliament) to the Blair government’s only slightly more open decision to renew Trident in 2006. Whether the politicians believe, as many of them do, that nuclear weapons are the cornerstone of our national security; or have concluded, as some nuclear sceptic politicians have done, that even to debate them is now so open to ridicule as to be tantamount to political suicide, the effect has been the same. Nuclear debate? No thanks.

That remains to this day the core position of the Conservative party. It has been boosted by the capture of the party by the anti-Europeans, for whom nuclear arms provide a guarantee of post-EU British global greatness. Downing Street crisply reiterated the doctrine today when the prime minister’s spokesman said David Cameron believes there is no credible alternative to continuous at-sea British nuclear deterrence. The No 10 official was categorical. “It is as simple as that,” he said.

This is not true. Credible nuclear and non-nuclear alternatives to continuous at-sea Trident nuclear submarines do exist. Most countries in the world do not have this form of defence. Many of them nevertheless remain leading global powers. So it is right to debate those alternatives here too. Even Mr Blair, in his 2010 memoir, concedes the point. And many of the options were set out in today’s 64-page government review of alternatives.

The most important of these, though not the only one, is that the UK genuinely has the option of scaling down its nuclear weapons capability from the present four submarines based on the Clyde to three or even two. This is a possibility that deserves …read more