The UK’s nuclear deterrent will always be a controversial issue for the country and its politicians.
That is understandable: the prospect of nuclear holocaust is so grotesque that many simply will not countenance their taxes being spent on a system that could – even in theory – inflict it. Some members of all parties, including ours, will not waver from this principled unilateralism. They will never accept that the United Kingdom has a responsibility to maintain a nuclear capability specifically to prevent nuclear war as long as other nations possess such weapons (the old concept of mutually assured destruction which held, despite frightening brinkmanship during the Cuban missile crisis, throughout the cold war).
Apart from the period of Michael Foot’s leadership, that has always been Labour’s position. It remains so today under Ed Miliband, which is why the nationalist parties’ posturing over the deterrent in the House of Commons today will get nowhere at all.
We should be proud of our record in government on non-proliferation. Under Labour’s leadership, Britain became the first nuclear state in the world to sign up to the long-term aim of a global zero – a world completely free from nuclear weapons. That goal has now been embraced by The United States under Barack Obama, as well as by former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev, though Russia’s current position is far from clear.
The next Labour government must do everything in its power to rekindle active moves towards non-proliferation, which have faltered as a result of the freeze in relations with Russia, which remains fundamental to any future deal. Labour demonstrated its commitment to global leadership on reducing nuclear weapons stocks by convening, in 2009, the P5 process to end the stagnation of disarmament in the post-cold war world. In the run-up to this year’s review of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty this process needs to be given new focus and ambition.
But for as long as global zero remains beyond the horizon as it is at present, we will do what is necessary to maintain the UK’s deterrent capability. That means pressing on with the renewal of the Vanguard-class submarines which carry Trident missiles. The existing submarines are already nearing the end of their natural life and the programme to build new ones is so tight (largely as a result of the delay imposed by the coalition government) that scrapping or pausing it now would effectively mean a return to the 1980s Labour policy of unilateralism. We are rightly never going back to those days.
With money so tight, Ed understandably ordered his defence team to re-examine the case for renewal and the most cost-effective way of maintaining a minimum, credible deterrent. They concluded that a submarine-based strategic system which is continuously at-sea remains overwhelmingly the most appropriate system for the UK and most cost-effective way to deliver it is to continue with the successor submarine building programme which we began in government and will be voted on in 2016. Even the Liberal Democrats’ own government-funded review eventually concluded that their favoured ‘mini-deterrent’ option of nuclear-tipped cruise missiles aboard the smaller Astute-class submarines would actually cost more and be less effective.
There is similar absurdity in the latest fallback position for the Liberal Democrats, a part-time deterrent that is only operational for parts of the year rather than round-the-clock as the UK’s deterrent has been since 1969. Aside from the relatively small amounts that going part time would save, the point of continuous at-sea deterrence is that it is practically invulnerable. A potential future adversary in a future nightmare scenario is far less likely to launch a nuclear strike if it knows that it would face retaliation no matter how much damage it did to Britain. Change that posture and such an adversary is guaranteed to wait for a period when Britain’s deterrent submarine is not at sea before it strikes.
It is for the nationalists to explain why they are seeking to prioritise unilateral disarmament by making it the one red line they would have in any future coalition talks, above all the pressing issues that matter to people in Scotland and Wales. It is also for them to say how this stance fits with their desire to remain a member of Nato, an alliance founded specifically on the concept of collective nuclear protection.
But Labour’s view is settled: Ed will never accept an irresponsible deal that trades the nuclear security of future generations in a deeply uncertain world for nationalist support to enter Downing Street.
We are going to carry on campaigning for a Labour majority; Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National party can dream on.
John Woodcock MP is chair of Progress. He tweets @JWoodcockMP
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