New nuclear weapons for the UK: a challenge Labour can’t dodge

Labour could turn opposition to the billion pound Trident replacement into an electoral asset, but instead appears to be sleepwalking to oblivion. Rebecca Johnson makes the case for challenging Trident replacement, and says it's time to mobilise civil society

Rebecca Johnson
23 August 2013

The 2015 general election may be this country’s last chance to avoid wasting billions of pounds on new nuclear weapons that one of Labour’s greatest Foreign Secretaries, Robin Cook, condemned as “worse than irrelevant” for addressing 21st century security challenges. Following the sham Trident Alternatives Review, it is clear that we need to mobilise civil society pressure to scrap Trident and elect a new government that is willing and able to participate in multilateral disarmament negotiations to rid the world of the scourge of nuclear weapons for all time. 

The rational case was won a long time ago, even with many Conservatives.  Across most of the world, nuclear weapons are recognised to be clumsy, outdated weapons that carry residual risks but cannot be used for dealing with the real world security challenges we might face in the 21st century and beyond. Replacing the current submarines with another Trident system is a foolish project driven by the economic interests of a handful of British and American defence contractors well versed in manipulating political fears, vanity, and inertia among our politicians and civil servants. Tony Blair’s memoirs reveal that despite recognising that there was no military or security case for replacing Trident, he felt it would be easier to carry on nuclear business as usual than to initiate the political arguments at home and be accused of “downgrading our status”.  Now this shortsighted procurement is being taken forward by David Cameron.  Nick Clegg – having been outmanoeuvred by Cameron over the Review – is bent on overcoming Liberal Democrat scepticism and getting his Party to back Trident replacement.  Labour could turn opposition to Trident replacement into an electoral asset, but instead appears to be sleepwalking to oblivion.

Ed Miliband seems to be a thoughtful, intelligent man.  But he also needs to be cannier as a politician and robustly unafraid of the challenges and decisions of leadership. I’d be willing to bet that he understands that there is no military or security case for Trident and that Britain would be a more highly regarded international player if we stopped clinging to weapons of mass destruction that we don’t need and can’t afford.  He can no doubt recognise that redirecting resources from Trident replacement to the armed forces, or – better still – health, education and sustainable energy projects would be electorally popular and create more jobs than BAE Systems is likely to employ at Barrow.  Since they are behind on producing Astute submarines, Barrow jobs are already secured for the next decade and more, giving plenty of time to reskill, retool and develop alternatives for the workforce if a forward-looking programme for managing the transition were put in place. 

Scrapping Trident altogether would be very popular with most Labour (as well as Liberal Democrat and Green) supporters and enable Britain to play a more useful role in international disarmament and non-proliferation initiatives.  If the focus groups aren’t yet ready for that, however, a compelling case can at the very least be put forward for the 2015 general election which commits to putting the costs and plans for replacing Trident on hold until we can at least see where international efforts to ban and eliminate nuclear weapons are heading.

The prudent (but winning) case for challenging the billion-pound rush for Trident replacement could run something like this:  The nature of security and deterrence have changed since the end of the Cold war, and nuclear weapons are neither necessary nor useful for these purposes.  Trident replacement would be costly, and come at the expense of other important defence commitments, as pointed out by senior military officials in the UK and among our NATO allies.  As long as some states continue to value, possess and pursue nuclear weapons they could remain a security problem, so we might want to hedge our bets for a while; however, it is clear that we would be more successful in preventing future nuclear threats if we join other nations to stigmatise, reduce, prohibit and eliminate all existing arsenals.  In accordance with our obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) the UK has committed to “achieving and maintaining a world without nuclear weapons” through unilateral as well as multilateral and bilateral steps.   Because of these obligations, and in view of the fact that a large number of governments, including some of our NATO allies, have begun working towards a treaty to ban nuclear weapons, the UK government should put plans to replace Trident on hold and join multilateral negotiations to get a nuclear ban treaty and eliminate these inhumane weapons for everyone.  We can retain the option to replace Trident if negotiations fail, but should delay the irrevocable spending decisions while we make every effort to promote a stronger international regime to prevent nuclear production, use and accidents.

That’s the basic case to make for the 2015 election.  If necessary, it can also be pointed out that by varying Trident patrols now, it would be possible to prolong the life of the existing submarine fleet while the UK puts political resources into multilateral negotiations to ban nuclear weapons. The Coalition government has set 2016 as the deadline for the MoD’s “main gate” decision point, when high cost construction contracts are due to be signed with BAE Systems to start building the submarines.  This timetable is dictated by current assumptions on Trident’s current service life and production schedules for replacing it with a similar system. Those assumptions are questionable.

Even Trident advocates (or most of them) are willing to accept that our security does not require having a nuclear sub at sea at all times on the “continuous-at-sea deterrence” (CASD) patrols that were considered necessary during the Cold War. So changing that small element of UK doctrine and operations would be a practical step that could be taken immediately, with a positive effect on our pockets, decision points, and international standing. 

Beware, however, of making this interim change into the main objective. Since CASD has not been necessary for decades, suspending this requirement should be undertaken immediately to save money and relieve pressure on the navy and the submarine refurbishment schedules.  It should not be treated as a way to make the replacement of the Trident system for the next 50 years appear cheaper and more palatable. 

In light of the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons, presenting Britain’s nuclear options to 2060 as a debate over CASD and a toss up between 2, 3 or 4 subs is like obsessing over how many deckchairs Titanic needs while ignoring iceberg warnings, the need to change course and the disastrous lack of lifeboats if we don’t change course in time.

The Trident Alternatives Review (TAR) has already indicated that the no CASD Trident Lite option could be a fallback if the Conservatives can’t get a full like for like Trident replacement through. That is to be expected. More worryingly, it also looks likely to feature high in the forthcoming report of the BASIC Trident Commission.  Initiated over 2 years ago by the British American Security Information Council this Commission is chaired by Lord Des Browne, Convenor of the Top Level Group and the former Defence Secretary who fronted Tony Blair’s push for Trident replacement in 2007, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, Chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee and former Conservative Defence and Foreign Secretary, and Sir Menzies Campbell, former Liberal Democrat leader and Foreign Affairs spokesperson.  Astonishingly for this day and age, the Commissioners were almost entirely chosen from the UK’s white male establishment. Several have been prominently involved in pursuing and defending nuclear weapons procurements in the past and still have institutional positions in party politics.Only one is a woman, Professor Alyson Bailes, former ambassador and head of the FCO's Security Policy Department

If current indications are correct, the BASIC Commission is in danger of underestimating international developments and putting forward out-dated lowest-common-denominator recommendations.  However one might dress up Trident Lite with abandoning CASD and expressions of support for the NPT, nuclear security and multilateral arms reductions, this still amounts to advocating Trident replacement when the world is moving in the opposite direction.  Even a nod in the direction of Global Zero (which most if not all the Commission members along with David Cameron have signed) would fail to impress, as high minded rhetoric means nothing without concrete actions and policy changes to achieve such a goal.

It would be sad if BASIC’s laudable initiative has set its sights too low and ends up failing to make use of current opportunities to promote a fundamental rethink. Having been senior advisor to the International WMD Commission chaired by Dr Hans Blix (2004-07) I am well aware how difficult it is to steer such Commissions away from the traps and icebergs of their members’ established political outlooks and preferences.  But it is probably not too late to reframe the options and help British policy-makers adapt to the 21st century, where international humanitarian law is increasingly applied to military and disarmament choices. If not, it will turn out to be as unfit for purpose as the TAR, with the added danger of undermining civil society efforts to change the games that nuclear-armed states play.

In any case, Ed Miliband should not wait for this Commission (or anyone else) to do the thinking for him, as some reports have suggested.  As a matter of urgency, Labour needs to conduct an in depth, forward-looking policy review to assess all the options for UK nuclear policy in light of current and future developments in security, defence, non-proliferation and disarmament.

This is the third in a series of articles by Rebecca Johnson  on the UK nuclear weapons debate. Read Pro-nuclear propaganda in 1983: lessons for 2103  and Trident Alternatives Review: the elephant in the room

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