Trident: a conversation with Nick Harvey

by Stephen Tall on February 28, 2007

So I answer the phone, and it’s Nick Harvey, the Lib Dems’ defence spokesman. I guess that, rather like being famous for 15 minutes, it’s something that should happen to everybody at least once in their lifetime. His call isn’t out-of-the-blue, of course – we’d arranged to speak about the forthcoming Trident debate, which will be the hot topic for discussion at the Lib Dems’ Spring conference in Harrogate this coming week-end.

Nick and the Lib Dem leader, Ming Campbell, will be backing the recommendations of the majority report of the Federal Policy Committee’s Trident working party. This recommends the UK immediately cut its nuclear stockpile in half, but take no decision on renewing Trident – as the current system has many years of life left in it – until after the 2010 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) talks.

I began by asking Nick to outline his reasoning. “We’re entering a dangerous period, globally,” he comments, “with both Iran and Korea showing an active interest in developing nuclear technology. This could result in a potentially significant increase in nuclear weapons as their neighbours start to equip in response. It’s absolutely vital to stop this happening.

“The UK is in a strong position to take a leading role, comparable to our stance against climate change, or poverty in Africa. Cutting our nuclear capability in half sends a clear signal of our good faith. If we get international commitment on disarmament we can then get rid of the other half.”

To which a fair response might be: is this realistic? After all, one of the most common criticisms of Tony Blair’s Iraq policy has been that he over-inflates the importance of his relationship with George Bush, that he imagines the UK to have greater leverage with the White House than either the past or the present would suggest is actually the case. Does Nick really believe wholesale disarmament is possible?

Yes, is the answer: “This isn’t completely pie-in-the-sky. The five-yearly NPT talks made modest progress in 1995 and 2000. No headway was possible in 2005 because of Iraq. But, by 2010, Bush and Blair will be gone: the climate could be very different.”

The amendment from the Lib Dem Peace and Security group to the Working Party’s motion which has been tabled for debate at conference worries him. It advocates retaining the current Trident weapons system for the rest of its life at an estimated cost of £1.5bn a year. Peculiarly, this is a more hawkish position than the leadership’s, as (presumably mistakenly) the amendment removes their proposed 50% cut to Trident.

More controversially, the amendment seeks unequivocally to nail down the Lib Dem position on any future ‘Son of Trident’, urging conference to take the decision now not to replace it. “But if we have already made the decision to disarm unilaterally,” says Nick, “the UK will be in no position to take leadership, and will have no cards left to play.”

It’s a familiar argument, one most famously deployed by Nye Bevan, who pleaded with the 1957 Labour party conference not to adopt unilateralism: “It would send a British Foreign Secretary naked into the conference-chamber.”

The question has to be asked: would Nick feel able to defend the party’s policy if the amendment at conference were passed? He – understandably – chooses his words with care: ”The amendment is an inherently illogical position, and it won’t take political opponents long to spot this. It would be an uphill struggle to defend it convincingly. To keep Trident going, but to say no to any successor lands you with all the cost and none of the influence. At least the unilateralist position, though not mine, is intellectually clearer and cleaner.”

Which segues us neatly into the argument in favour of retaining Trident, and not (yet) ruling out renewing it: deterrence. Is Trident an effective deterrent? Nick replies instantly: “Absolutely. The big issue is future unpredictability. The current system has another 20 years in it. A new system would take us through to 2060. Who knows what the world might be like by then?

“Fifty years ago, would anyone have predicted the global situation today? Being a nuclear power could in desperate circumstances give the UK the ability, for example, to offer humanitarian relief to the population of another nuclear power – which the UK could do if it’s perceived as an honest broker.” There is an obvious counter-argument to this, of course: a nuclear-free state is more likely to be perceived as an honest broker than one which retains such weapons of mass destruction.

The key issue in the debate for me is the increasingly complex global situation. Nuclear weapons were developed at a time when the USA and Britain were at war with Germany. Between 1945 and 1989, global politics remained bi-polar, ‘West’ versus ‘East’. The collapse of Communism didn’t just splinter the Berlin Wall into a thousand pieces: the so-called ‘world order’ which, however patchily, was kept in check by Nato (aka the USA) and the Soviet Union also fragmented.

To the five legitimate nuclear states – the USA, Russia, the UK, France and China – we can add five non-legit states: Israel, Pakistan, India, North Korea and (perhaps, soon enough) Iran. Frankly, the idea that the UK unilaterally disarming will persuade the other nine to follow our example beggars belief. The five non-legit states are not equipping to defend themselves from the UK, but as protection from the future potential aggression of their neighbours. Whatever traction we have – and it would be rash to exaggerate it – will come from sitting down with them at the same negotiating table.

There are currently just too many variables. What are the future intentions of either Russia or China? We simply don’t know. As Nick says, “There is no pending nuclear threat from any one state – but who can say that will be the case over the next 50 years?” Then there is the question of non-state actors, terrorist groups with WMD operating beyond the control (but perhaps with the tacit approval) of national governments: the perfect front for an enemy looking to commit an atrocity on foreign soil with plausible deniability.

International terrorism dominates thinking about defence matters. But there is an equally real, if less immediate, danger: climate change. The Foreign Secretary, Margaret Beckett, made the connection in a speech in Berlin last year:

“Wars fought over limited resources – land, fresh water, fuel – are as old as history itself. By drastically diminishing those resources in some of the most volatile parts of the world, climate change creates a new and potentially catastrophic dynamic. The Middle East is a case in point. Five per cent of the world’s population already has to share only one per cent of the world’s water. Climate change will mean there is even less water to go round. Current climate models suggest that – globally – Saudi, Iran and Iraq will see the biggest reductions in rainfall. Egypt – a pivotal country for regional stability – will suffer a double blow.”

The unpredictability of today’s global situation means the stakes are high. This, Nick argues as we conclude our conversation, is why the 2010 NPT talks are so vital: “Our objective for the next few years must be to make sufficient progress with multilateral negotiations so that another generation of nukes becomes unnecessary.”

My final question: what does Nick think will happen at conference? He doesn’t know: fair enough. “There is everything to play for at Harrogate. The FPC motion is something the party can unite around. I dearly hope people can see there is something here for everyone.”

* You can read the motion backing the recommendations of the Majority report of the FPC Trident working party, together with the proposed amendments from the Peace and Security group, over at Lib Dem Voice here.