OF ALL THE ISSUES that form part of the current General Election debate, few can be as important as the UK’s nuclear deterrent. If you accept that protection of its people is the state’s most important task, then the future of the Trident weapons system must be top of the agenda. Yet, surprisingly perhaps, it has not been writ large in the debate so far.
Where do the parties stand on Trident? Well, we now have the benefit of all the main parties’ manifestoes to compare their differing positions on this most controversial of topics. In particular, attention is focused on the replacement of our ageing nuclear-armed submarine fleet. The basis of the current deterrence posture is “continuous at sea deterrence”, which provides that one nuclear armed submarine is on patrol at any one time, thereby negating the risks of a pre-emptive attack.
Unsurprisingly, the Conservative Party, the party of government in Westminster, is fully committed to the current Trident system and to the replacement of the present four Vanguard class submarines by the equivalent number of the new Dreadnought class submarines from the late 2020s onwards. Construction of the first of the new submarines began in 2016. The overall cost of the new-build programme is disputed: estimates range from £30bn to £179bn whole life cost. Suffice to say they are very expensive indeed and a significant item in the Treasury’s ledger.
For its part, the Labour Party follows the same line, although it has to be said that Jeremy Corbyn’s support for the deterrent is voiced probably through gritted teeth, he being a lifelong anti-nuclear weapons campaigner. The Labour manifesto pledges both to hold a strategic defence and security review on entering government and to “lead multilateral efforts with international partners and the UN to create a nuclear-free world”. A cynic might note that there is some wiggle room there. It is also true that Scottish Labour has been traditionally against the idea but has been brought to heel, for the time being at least.
The Liberal Democrats would seem to be, on the face of it, a party whose members would be naturally anti-nuclear weaponry. Indeed, they have tended to be anti-nuclear energy because of the “risks” therein, and clearly nuclear weaponry is a much more dangerous proposition altogether. It may come as a surprise, therefore, to find that in its manifesto the party does support the maintenance and replacement of the deterrent, but in a watered down version.
In particular it calls for the procurement of three, instead of four, new boats and accepts that the deterrent will no longer be continuous. It calls this a “medium-readiness responsive posture… replacing continuous at-sea deterrence [and] instead maintaining the deterrent through measures such as unpredictable and irregular patrolling patterns”. Others would call this a bit of a fudge.
The SNP manifesto reinforces the party’s historical anti-nuclear anything stance, stating that “SNP MPs will build a cross-party coalition to scrap Trident as quickly and safely as possible. We will vote for the billions other Westminster parties are committing to renewing Trident to be spent on our public services”. Given that the party is unlikely to ever form even part of a Westminster government – although never say never – it’s easy for it to pontificate so.
The SNP has previously called the Trident weapons system an “obscenity” and an “abhorrence”, but demands that it be removed immediately from its base on the Clyde are akin to whistling in the wind. There is nowhere else in the UK for it to go. In addition, the large number of jobs that Faslane provides – between 6,700 and 13,000 depending on who you believe – are unlikely to be wholly transferable to the conventional naval base which the SNP proposes to establish in place of the submarine base.
As one commentator noted, “The backbone of SNP defence policy is still that we ought not to have a backbone.” Harsh, perhaps, but a more realistic and pragmatic stance is required.
So there we have it, three differing approaches; keep the deterrent as is and support its like for like replacement, accept the deterrent but water down the future submarine fleet, and get rid of it altogether and as soon as possible. In the current international political climate it is likely that the first of these will prevail. The Trident system will be maintained and in due course upgraded by the new Dreadnought submarine fleet.
Whether this will have any bearing on voting intentions on 8th June is another matter altogether. It’s often said there are no votes in defence, so I wouldn’t hold your breath.
Stuart Crawford is a former army officer and now a freelance defence and security commentator.