MPs voted through a military programme that has no rationale, argues Alex Bennett. The campaign against renewal must go on
If you were to ask any UK party-leader of the last thirty years about Trident, you would likely get the same response. The nuclear deterrent is just one more issue our Very Serious Politicians all happen to agree on, thereby banishing it to the margins for a generation. This all changed last year following the SNP landslide and the resurgent Labour left, which unexpectedly returned unilateralism to the mainstream.
Despite this shift, the parliamentary consensus has remained unmoved. This week Trident renewal passed by a landslide, with three-quarters of MP’s supporting a new generation of weapons. The program will likely cost, once decommissioning and contingencies are included, up to £205 billion over its lifetime. MP’s have justified this enormous expense—enough to build 3 million affordable new homes—by arguing that we cannot rely on the United States alone to provide NATO’s nuclear deterrent. Theresa May asked parliament, "How would America and France react if we suddenly announced that we were abandoning our nuclear capabilities, but still expected them… to protect us in a nuclear crisis?
The independence of our nuclear deterrent—one that 95 per cent of countries have so far managed to survive without—has always been a fantasy. More a symbol of our Great Power status than a useful military programme. The existence of this fantasy was mentioned only once in Monday’s commons debate by Labour’s Robert Godsiff, who rightly pointed out that the UK’s nuclear weapons are not independent at all, but actually remain on lease from the United States. Despite the thousands of highly-skilled workers supporting the program, our submarines must visit an American naval base to fit their nuclear warheads.
"It is of course said by those who support renewal that we have ‘operational independence’,” Godsiff claimed. “I just do not believe that there is any scenario in which a British Prime Minister would authorise a submarine commander to use the nuclear weapons anywhere in the world without first notifying the Americans."
This view was echoed by the authors of the 2014 Trident Commission report, who claimed that if the United States were to completely withdraw their cooperation, the “UK nuclear capability would probably have a life expectancy measured in months rather than years.” The independence of the nuclear deterrent lies in “its immediate operational capacity (the ability to patrol and to launch the missiles) rather than in its procurement and maintenance.
So if not independence, what exactly are we buying for our £205 billion? The only response I could find to Godsiff’s claim was the supposition that a hypothetical aggressor may try to “pick us off” without the US responding on our behalf. This is, to put it kindly, a ludicrous argument. As much as our establishment may refuse to admit it, the UK’s foreign policy has been adjunct to the United States ever since Suez. And our 160 active weapons? They are little more than an extension to the United States’ 4,500. There is virtually no conceivable instance in which we could use them without US cooperation.
That we continue to starve the conventional military of investment—not to mention the rest of the economy—just to lease a fraction of the American nuclear stockpile on the off chance our closest ally decides to abandon NATO is laughable. Even members of the US establishment have started to urge an end to our independent deterrent, arguing that the UK can “either [be] a nuclear power and nothing else or a real military partner.
The Prime Minister claims that “stopping nuclear weapons being used globally is not achieved by giving them up unilaterally. It is achieved by working towards a multilateral process.” But in the wider context of NATO—and the several thousand warheads that make up its protective umbrella—ending our US-dependent program would be far closer to a multilateral disarmament than the mainstream debate would suggest.
In what possible instance could the UK launch a nuclear weapon without the assistance of the United States? Of the nine countries that currently possess nuclear weapons—and the states that could conceivable possess them in the next few decades—the one that MP’s have worried about most vocally is Russia. MP’s have made clear that Russia’s upgrades to their nuclear capabilities, as well as new military protocols that permit a first strike, mean this cold war relic is still required.
The reality, despite Putin’s posturing and transgressions, is the same today as it was in the cold war. Russia can only afford to be concerned with its immediate sphere of influence, and a first strike or act of war against the UK would be political and economic suicide. In fact, the only conceivable situation in which the UK would be drawn into conflict with Russia is if there was an act of aggression against one of the NATO states that were formerly members of the Warsaw Pact.
The Russian threat has always been more rhetorical than it is real. Even at the height of the cold war, Soviet territorial ambitions extended no further than Eastern Europe and parts of Asia; essentially their own doorstep. To claim that Putin’s Russia, as odious as it is, would attempt this act of self-destruction by committing a nuclear first-strike is ridiculous. And that we have just committed to spending billions on the “ultimate insurance” policy to replicate American capabilities that we will never use is even more so. As Peter Hitchens tweeted this week, “Trident [is] like spending all your money on insuring against alien abduction, so you can't afford cover against fire and theft.”
Even the economic argument that has convinced GMB and Unite to pressure Labour MPs does not hold up to scrutiny. While Trident is supporting up to 31,000 jobs, at £205 billion, it is surely, at £6.5 million per employee, one of the “most expensive job creation scheme in history”. And even this stimulus is at the expense of jobs in the conventional military, where thousands of jobs have already been lost to redundancy and will continue to be lost thanks to chronic underfunding.
The unions are right that thousands of highly-skilled jobs and many communities rely on Trident, but employing such valuable skills on a project so wasteful is no more sensible than paying qualified doctors to dig holes and fill them in. What's rarely mentioned is the massive opportunity cost in deploying these scarce skills on an establishment vanity project of no obvious social benefit. It would take a fraction of the £205 billion cost of Trident to redeploy these communities in different industries.
The debate on Trident is not as narrow as our media conversation would have you believe. While it is true a narrow majority support renewal, public opinion is generally split down the middle. A poll conducted this year found that while 51 per cent do back full renewal, 49 per cent preferred either a non-nuclear submarine option or ditching the program altogether. Once again, when it comes to issues of national status and vanity, our political class is far more uniform in opinion than the population they govern, depriving us of the debate such an important and consequential topic deserves.
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