Lib Dems push Coalition to abandon ‘Moscow criterion’ in latest anti-Trident move

by Stephen Tall on May 20, 2012

Writing in the Financial Times, former Lib Dem leader Ming Campbell has urged Britain to drop the so-called ‘Moscow criterion’ — which commits us to maintaining an independent nuclear deterrent capable of obliterating the Russian capital — in order to open up the possibilities of a more targeted, and cheaper, nuclear alternative to the renewal of Trident:

Nuclear weapons have no intrinsic merit. Their significance is in deterrence. If you ever have to use them it can only be because they have failed in their primary purpose. But nuclear policy ought always to be assessed in its political context. It is unthinkable today that Britain would contemplate the destruction of the heavily populated capital of Russia – or of any other city. … when the political context provides safe opportunities to reduce the salience of nuclear weapons we should take them, if necessary by “independent” decisions.

Abandoning the Moscow criterion would inevitably affect the current debate about a replacement for Trident. It would underline the question of whether a like-for-like replacement of Trident is necessary or whether minimum deterrence can be provided in some other way. It is no longer enough to plan as if the cold war had never ended and mutually assured destruction, or a variant of it, were still necessary. The answer to the question must reflect the realities of the time.

You can read Ming’s article in full here.

Ming’s position is likely to be reflective of thinking by Lib Dem defence minister Nick Harvey, who (according to a report elsewhere in the FT) is ‘questioning the so-called Moscow Criterion, which some see as a relic of the cold war’:

… the abandonment of the Moscow Criterion is becoming a focus of Lib Dem policy, and a likely point of contention with their Conservative coalition partners. … “Nick Harvey is known to be pushing for the abandonment of the Moscow Criterion as part of a wider internal debate within government over whether there is a more affordable deterrent,” said Ian Kearns, chief executive of the European Leadership Network think-tank, and a leading expert on UK nuclear policy. “It’s not clear yet that it’s an argument he is winning.”

Securing agreement not to renew Trident — supported by both Labour and the Conservatives — was of course one of the Lib Dems’ major wins in the Coalition Agreement, which committed the Coalition to a through review of nuclear deterrent options:

We will maintain Britain’s nuclear deterrent, and have agreed that the renewal of Trident should be scrutinised to ensure value for money. Liberal Democrats will continue to make the case for alternatives.

And those alternatives are likely to become much more viable if the founding assumptions of the review reflect the world as it is and will be, rather than the world as it was.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and also writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.