Why our political classes won’t have any real debate on Trident until after the election

Until May 8, tis all just posturing. EPA

In the run-up to the Scottish independence referendum, the UK government refused to admit to any contingency plans for relocating Trident, the four Vanguard-class submarines mounted with nuclear warheads that are stationed at the Faslane naval base some 25 miles from Glasgow.

Though the Scottish National Party (SNP) had long made clear that an independent Scotland would not want Trident within its territory, it made no political sense for the UK government to show weakness by contemplating anything less than a No victory in the referendum.

Labour is in a similar position over questions of a potential power-sharing deal with the Scottish nationalists should it become the biggest party in a hung parliament after the May general election. Hence it has been playing coy and keeping quiet about whether it would do a deal with the SNP, should predictions come to pass that they will “wipe out Labour in Scotland”.

On the Trident issue, Labour’s latest gambit has been for the shadow foreign secretary, Douglas Alexander, to say that the party would exclude the nuclear deterrent from any coalition discussions.

Trident’s three prongs

Time will tell if Alexander’s comments leave any room for manoeuvre, but it is a reminder that there are three issues to consider in the context of Trident. First there is the short-term election struggle, of course. This is tangled up with the second strand, which is the UK government and the MoD’s reluctance to ever be held hostage again over control of Trident. The current arrangement meant that the SNP could have used it as a significant bargaining chip had Scotland voted Yes last September.

Prong, prong, prong. Jiripravda

Finally, there is the debate over the long-term strategic viability and expense of replacing the deterrent in its current configuration. It is currently due to be decided by a parliamentary vote next year.

The Tory-led coalition came out in favour of like-for-like renewal of the current deterrent in 2010, echoing the position of Labour since 2006. Yet Labour leader Ed Miliband has hinted that he would favour a “least-cost nuclear deterrent”.

It is the recent combination of these three issues that is creating such uncertainty over the future of the deterrent. Although the political posturing makes for great headlines in the run-up to the general election, it is the last narrative on efficiency and utility that is in the most need of attention. But it is also the least likely to take centre stage until after May.

Wales watching

The fact that Labour is both unclear about its Trident plans and could potentially do a deal with the SNP is contributing to the uncertainty. It is no surprise that national newspapers are replete with stories on the potential ramifications of a hung parliament – and one would expect them to reach saturation point the closer we inch towards the election.

For instance, recent statements that “work has now begun on the practicalities of shifting Britain’s nuclear defence systems to Pembrokeshire” in Wales have all the hallmarks of the sort of political white noise that the film maker Adam Curtis frequently observes.

Although the county’s deep-sea port of Milford Haven has been recognised as one potential alternative to Faslane since the 1960s, it was rejected at that time because of its dangerous proximity to two liquefied natural gas (LNG) facilities in the area. The new claims seem to have more to do with local Welsh politics than they do with any serious plan for any UK government to relocate Trident there.

If contingency plans are underway, Milford Haven would be just one of the options being considered. The most suitable site (but by no means without problems) is HMNB Devonport at Plymouth, which is, crucially, also in England. It would seem to make little sense to move Trident from one region of the UK with separatist tendencies to another, no matter how undeveloped they are in Wales as compared to Scotland.

Lock gates at Milford Haven, through which Trident is unlikely to sail. Talsarnau Times, CC BY-SA

Scottish possibilities

There certainly is a need for a commissioned study to scrutinise possible relocation options as Professor Malcolm Chalmers of the Royal United Services Institute defence think tank proposed before the Scottish referendum. It is also worth considering where Labour/SNP discussions might lead, notwithstanding Alexander’s intervention.

On the Labour side, Miliband’s hints about a reduced deterrent leaves the door open for a limited deal. And the SNP’s position is not quite as hard-line as during the Scottish referendum. They are no longer asking for the removal of Trident from Scotland. In exchange for their support in Westminster, they want a commitment to “no Trident renewal”.

The idea of Labour accepting a deal that would essentially disarm the UK of its deterrent overnight is not credible, but agreement to delay the 2016 decision on replacement could be in the party’s interest. This could allow a proper debate on the real utility of Trident while extending the SNP some political cover. It is also worth bearing in mind that the relocation options might widen if Trident were replaced by a smaller deterrent.

The big question

But more importantly, we need a serious debate that gives serious public reflection to Trident’s practicality and effectiveness as a deterrent. For one thing there is the economic debate. Can a top-shelf replacement of Trident be justified in an age of austerity and shrinking defence budgets? If it is a given that the UK will continue to think of itself as a premier security provider, will it best achieve this by spending diminishing resources on additional conventional forces or on another Rolls-Royce version of Trident?

Or does the Government’s Trident Alternatives Review suggest a third way between a £20bn replacement and complete abandonment? These issues are even more acute since the capital costs for replacement will now be paid through the MoD budget and not the UK Treasury.

Trident: still fit for purpose? Unknown, CC BY-SA

An equally crucial question is whether Trident is strategically viable in the 21st century. Does it deter the extremely challenging and modern threats in our current interdependent security environment – global warming, transnational terrorism, pandemics? Or does the role of nuclear weapons in deterring war between states still override these concerns?

We may also want to ask to what extent the like-for-like replacement is really about overlaps in US and UK submarine procurement contracts. Then there is the question of the ramifications for nuclear proliferation if the UK demonstrates to the world that retaining a cheaper version of the deterrent is a viable option.

These are the issues that should really be preoccupying the electorate and our political leaders. Yet political horse-trading and speculative proposals for Trident relocation and termination will remain the dominant headlines until the election. Once it is out of the way, hopefully a more rigorous and meaningful debate on Trident can finally take place.

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