One of the most interesting aspects of last week’s Leaders’ debate was the discussion about the need for the renewal of Trident. Both Cameron and Brown put the case for renewal with only Clegg prepared to argue against. I cannot help but believe that Labour should think again about its support for the renewal of Trident and that, as argued last week by CND Chair Kate Hudson, the scrapping of Trident could end up being a vote winner and not a vote loser. Today several former Generals have expressed their 'deep concern' about the need foe a Trident replacement with Lord Gutherie stating that a cheaper option to Trident should be considered, particularly as Britain strives for a world without nuclear weapons.
In the eighties and nineties, when the Polaris and its successor the Trident nuclear strategic defence system was brought into operation, its purpose was unambiguous. The missiles were targeted against the principal cities of the USSR, in order to deter an attack through the threat of an overwhelming response. It is probably the case that the balance of MAD (mutually assured destruction) did indeed prevent the cold war between the western and eastern blocs from breaking out into open warfare. However, the world has changed. In June 2006 the House of Commons Defence Select Committee published its report 'The Future of the UK’s Strategic Nuclear Deterrent'. It pointed out that deterrence against potential aggression might take various forms: economic, diplomatic, or through conventional forces. "The UK will need to examine whether the concept of nuclear deterrence remains useful in the current strategic environment." (para.55). The Ministry of Defence refused to take part in the proceedings of the Select Committee, and the report stated "We believe that it is essential that, before making any decisions on the future of the strategic nuclear deterrent, the MOD should explain its understanding of the purpose and continuing relevance of nuclear deterrence." (para.56).While the claim is that Britain must have its own independent deterrent, the truth is that as long as the UK uses Trident missiles as the delivery vehicle for its warheads, the system is hardly independent. The 2006 Defence Committee report distinguished between independence of acquisition and independence of operation (para.84). Britain does not have independence of acquisition and it is not clear whether we possess operational independence or not. The truth is renewing Trident will be massively expensive and militarily pointless as it will not deter terrorists or nuclear blackmailers and will make it far harder for Britain to encourage nuclear disarmament around the globe.
What about the politics of all this - would a nuclear disarmament policy be politically damaging to Labour? A poll last year clearly showed – by a margin of 58 to 35 per cent - that the public wants Britain to scrap the Trident nuclear missile system. Such a policy would not necessarily lead to a charge of being soft on defence, since a significant proportion of the saved resource could and should be devoted on enhanced expenditure on conventional forces serving in places like Afghanistan and Iraq.
In my view, be it on military, political, economic, legal or ethical grounds, the case for the renewal of Trident lacks credibility. Labour - my party - should think again.