Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Trident: Remember what happened to Ukraine

In the 1980s unilateralism almost broke the Labour party. It must never do it again. From Neil Kinnock’s brave denunciation of one-sided disarmament to today’s party policy on retaining Trident, Labour has been on a journey to electoral acceptability. If we ever want to get back to power then we need to protect that journey.

Just in case there remains a nostalgic glance back to the election-losing past I recommend Googling ‘Budapest Memorandum’. This was the agreement reached in 1994 when Ukraine, at that time holding the world’s third largest nuclear weapons stockpile, gave it all up in exchange for solemn security assurances from Britain, France the United States and Russia.

These countries promised a) to respect Ukrainian independence and sovereignty in its existing borders, b) to refrain from the threat or the use of force against Ukraine and c) to refrain from using economic pressure in order to influence its politics. Some bargain for unilaterally disarming?

Those who would oppose Trident’s successor, remembering that the current vote is to build four new submarines to replace the Vanguard subs nearing the end of their safe life, would be wise to look at what happened to Ukraine. They should also realise that whatever changes in the world over the next 40 years, once abolished we will never reinstate our nuclear deterrent. A negative vote would bind future generations whatever threat they might face.

And here is the crux: if we find it difficult to predict what will happen next week, next month and next decade, how can we possibly make a judgement on what we might face in 40 years? After all, even today more countries, either openly or secretly, are acquiring nuclear capability and more governments of more countries are acting unpredictably. Just think of the mad men in North Korea.

Our independent nuclear deterrent is assigned to Nato and, with the American and French deterrents, forms the nuclear umbrella which protects us and our allies. If you are deluded enough to think that the lack of hostility between the big powers is coincidence then think again. Nuclear deterrence over the last 70 years has prevented any state thinking it can win a conventional war with a Nato nation.

But why continuous at-sea deterrence? The answer is simple and unarguable: the ballistic missile submarines at sea are invisible, invulnerable and undetectable. But don’t just take my word.

In 2013 the Trident Alternatives Review was published. This review had been demanded by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition who expected another answer:

The highest level of assurance the UK can attain with a single deterrent system is provided by Ballistic Missile Submarines operating under continuous at sea deterrence posture.

Then BASIC, the pressure group opposing Trident renewal, set up its own inquiry and was surprised by its conclusion:

The Trident Ballistic Missile System meets the criteria of credibility, scale, survivability, reach and readiness.

And the cost? Of course, nuclear deterrence is not cheap but there is no substitute for the level of security needed. But ever-escalating and invented figures from CND have little credibility. Over its lifetime Trident will cost around £2bn a year. That is what we spend on the NHS every week.

This debate contributed to Labour’s long years in hopeless opposition but change eventually proved that we were electable and in tune with the electorate’s belief in strong defence. Abandoning Trident would be a serious body blow to our chances of getting backing to office.


George Robertson is a former defence secretary and former secretary general of Nato


Photo: Defence Images

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George Robertson

is a former secretary-general of Nato and former Labour cabinet minister

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