Trident: it’s déjà vu all over again

by Stephen Tall on October 30, 2012

The latest flurry of excitement about the Trident nuclear deterrent — as the Daily Mail puts it with typical tabloid restraint: Tories and LibDems at war over contract to build Trident sub: £350m deal is jumping the gun, warns Clegg — is one of those stories which pops up twice a year. The last time was six months ago, in May, when the Ministry of Defence announced £350m-worth of design contracts for the Trident successor submarines had been signed. As then Lib Dem defence minister Nick Harvey pointed out on LDV at the time:

[this] is being portrayed as the Coalition Government moving a step closer to a full Trident replacement. In reality the final decision for Trident replacement is still years away. Until 2016’s Main Gate decision, the ‘point of no return’ at which contracts are finalised and billions of pounds committed, there are still important questions to be asked about the future of the UK’s nuclear deterrent.

As Nick Harvey went on to point out, all that’s happening at the moment is that the Coalition Agreement is being followed exactly as set out in its text:

The Coalition Agreement set out the joint position: that the nuclear deterrent will be maintained, but at the same time the process of renewing Trident would be scrutinised for value for money. The Value for Money study of the Trident system took place in the summer of 2010, identifying changes to the programme by reducing the number of warheads on each submarine from 48 to 40 – as well as substantial savings to the tune of £3.2bn over 10 years.

Crucially, the Value for Money study scrutinised the timing of the Main Gate decision, the ‘point of no return’, and identified 2016 – rather than late 2014 or early 2015 – as the point at which a decision would be needed. Extending the timetable for the final decision in this way has opened the space for a rational debate on the future of Trident before the next election.

That remains the position, the same today as it was six months ago. As I wrote shortly after Nick Harvey was reshuffled out of Defence just a few weeks ago:

The North Devon MP has been a victim of his own success. So shrewdly has he overseen the Trident nuclear weapons review — the crunch defence decision which divides Lib Dems and Tories — that it is highly likely to produce more effective, better value deterrent options, with a final decision not needed until 2016, after the next election. We hear often enough about rewards for failure. Nick Harvey just encountered punishment for success.

I don’t often quote Polly Toynbee, but I’ll make an exception this once:

Tim Farron, the Lib Dem president, says it is inconceivable his party would ever be “handcuffed to Trident”. He tells me, “We are making this an election issue for 2015″, boasting that “we have already prevented a vast amount of money being wasted on it in this parliament.” Nick Clegg said yesterday that he would prevent the spending of “billions and billions and billions of pounds on a nuclear missile system designed with the sole strategic purpose of flattening Moscow at the press of a button”. … we know where everyone stands – except Labour. Deep policy thought is in progress. Ask, and it all depends who you talk to. Some in Labour are nuclear-heads because they occupy seats such as John Woodcock’s Barrow, a one-industry town dependent on defence. Others are nuclear out of strong conviction a unilateralist Labour would be dead at the polls. Probably no one in Labour actually believes we need a Trident replacement for national defence – only for political defence of Labour. The higher theology of nuclear weapons was always about face, status and politics.

We know what the Tory position is: pro-nukes no matter what the cost or whether they’re needed because they believe in the appearance of strong defence more than the reality. We know the Lib Dem position: in favour of a smart, effective — and cost-effective — replacement for Trident. The interesting question is which way will Labour now jump? Will they place a higher premium on defending themselves from the usual Tory attacks than they do on adopting a rational policy? They’ve a couple of years to make their minds up.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum, and also writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.