Trident: the Grand Old Lib Dems have lost this war already

by Stephen Tall on July 17, 2013

110301-N-7237C-009Yesterday the Lib Dems published The Trident Alternatives Review. According to Danny Alexander, “it is the most thorough review of nuclear systems and postures the UK has ever made public. It is ground-breaking – thanks to the Liberal Democrats and our insistence that Trident alternatives must be examined.” That may be: but this is a war the party will not win.

Here’s the party’s sound-bite version of the policy:

We oppose the like-for-like replacement of Trident. We believe there is a ‘nuclear ladder’ of capabilities. Alternative systems or postures could bring Britain down that ‘nuclear ladder’. We believe Britain is ready to step down the ladder, but not off it.

I wish you luck trying to sell that on the door-step.

“Hi, I’m from the Lib Dems and was wondering if you would vote for us on Thursday.”

“Well, I’m not sure. Could you tell me more about your policy on nuclear weapons?”

“Sure. In a post-cold war era we think Britain can scale back its nuclear deterrent.”

“But doesn’t that mean we would sometimes be unprotected?”

“Sometimes, yes. But not all the time.”

“Isn’t that the worst of all possible worlds? We don’t have a Continuous-At-Sea deterrent, but we’re still on every mad dictator’s target list?”

“But this way we’ll disarm gradually, making the world a safer place.”

“Only if every other country with weapons potential — y’know, stable democracies like North Korea or Iran — does likewise, though?”

“You’re forgetting that this will save us money.”

“Okay, I accept there may be a trade-off. What’s the saving?”

“An estimated £50m a year over the lifetime of Trident.”

“That doesn’t seem like much given what’s at stake.”

“Well, that’s not why we’re doing it. We want to step down the nuclear ladder.”

“Oh, I see. So now you’re stuck in the middle. Thanks. I think I’ve made up my mind: you should try it some time.”

I’m being facetious, maybe unfairly. The review is a perfectly sane, rational piece of work. (You can read it here.) And in a perfectly sane, rational world we could expect the argument to get a decent hearing. After all, polls suggest the British public is split on this issue: one-third (34%) support a like-for-like replacement of Trident, and roughly one-quarter each want a scaled-back nuclear deterrent (24%) or to disarm unilaterally (23%).

But the UK carries a lot of historical baggage. As the plucky little nation that stood up to Hitler, there is a little bit of us Brits seemingly hard-wired to believe that at some indefinable point the world will need us to save them again. Perhaps Kim Jong Un will get trigger-happy. Or perhaps the Arab Spring will descend into a nuclear winter. Then we’ll be grateful we maintained a vastly expensive nuclear fleet, always ready to be deployed at a moment’s notice. As with all insurance policies, the nuclear deterrent trades on our ‘worst case scenario’ insecurities. And who’d insure their home on a part-time basis?

The party leadership has sought to triangulate its way through the Trident review, determined not to sign up to a hard-line Tory policy of beggar-the-costs, and equally determined not to be painted as hands-in-the-air unilateralists. If Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander could’ve secured cross-party support, this Goldilocks not-too-hot-and-not-too-cold-war approach might have worked.

But with both the Conservatives and Labour fixated on a showy-off, muscle-flexing arms-race to prove who’s got the toughest, bestest defence policy, the Lib Dems risk ending up with a strategy modelled on the Grand Old Duke of York, “only half-way up the nuclear ladder, neither up nor down”.

* 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.