Hurrah! You may have noticed that we’re having a General Election on December 12th.
This opinion piece was submitted to the UK Defence Journal by Aenaes MacDonnell.
Most of the country is sick to the back teeth of politics thanks to the Westminster governments’ and elected representatives’ inability to compromise and agree on anything remotely associated with Brexit. Possibly, after over three years of pathetic wrangling, we might get a decision one way or another at the Election, and people will surely let out a huge, collective sigh of relief if we do. But I wouldn’t hold your breath as there are still years of post-Brexit negotiations to follow.
For politics and defence geeks, however, it does allow us to check out the different political parties’ current thoughts on defence policy, and particularly their thoughts on the UK’s nuclear deterrent, via their respective election manifestos.
The Liberal Democrats
First up are the Lib Dems, who have produced what can only be described as an anaemic defence policy in their manifesto, sadly (and probably deliberately) lacking in any detail whatsoever. The party has missed the boat (no pun intended) on Trident replacement, supporting the nuclear deterrent and the replacement Dreadnought class SSBNs, although arguing for three new boats rather that the current four and calling for “maintaining the deterrent through measures such as unpredictable and irregular patrolling patterns” – as if that doesn’t happen already. It’s all a bit half-baked to be honest and looks like the product of much hand-wringing and muddled thinking. Which it might be considering the party wants to legalise cannabis. Too many spliffs while considering defence matters?
The Labour Party
The UK Labour Party has clearly wholly embraced the UK’s nuclear weaponry and its manifest states quite simply “Labour supports the renewal of the Trident nuclear deterrent”. No ifs, no buts. Let’s just say that all their party members may not be completely happy with that. I know, because I’ve asked them. Deafening silence. Also it probably doesn’t go down very well with the party’s Scottish members, whose official position is that they oppose the renewal of Trident. However, the Scottish Labour manifesto defers to the UK party’s position. Doesn’t really fill you with much confidence, does it?
The Scottish National Party
Then there’s the SNP. The party’s position is quite clear; removal of Trident from the Clyde as soon as practical, which of course leaves huge room for manoeuvre. Here and elsewhere others have been banging on that Trident on the Clyde is a hypothetical independent Scotland’s biggest bargaining chip, an idea met at grassroot member level with a certain amount of grudging acceptance that allowing it to remain on the Clyde until obsolete in return a handsome annual rental might be a pragmatic way of implementing policy. Comment from the SNP leadership? Zip. But let’s be clear here; stravaiging up and down High Streets in Scotland yelling “Trident oot noo!” until you’re blue in the face (geddit?) just ain’t going to cut it.
The Brexit Party
Meanwhile the Brexit Party, in its “Contract With The People”, an easy and convenient cop-out from producing a full manifesto, says that it wishes to “ensure that the UK maintains its commitment to NATO and …. commitment to spend 2% of GDP on defence as an absolute minimum”. This seems to say, by default, that it’s committed to Trident, doesn’t it? Or does it? Questions to Nigel Farage on a postcard please and don’t hold your breath for an answer.
The Conservative Party
Finally the Conservatives, or the “Toarees” as Nicola Sturgeon and co are wont to call them. Unsurprisingly perhaps for the recent party of government (thanks to huge bribes to the DUP for their support), their rather sparse election manifesto supports the maintenance of the Trident nuclear deterrent. This is suitably vague and can mean all things to all men and women. There is no explicit commitment to renewing the SSBNs and arguably Trident could be maintained in a fashion by continuing with the current Vanguard class boats in service. Plenty of wiggle room there for Bojo and his pals and that’s just what they like to have!
My impression is that Trident in particular, and defence in general, tends to appear towards the end of all parties’ manifesto documents. After all, we are always told that there are no votes in defence, so why spend too much and effort on it, eh?
Allow me to make my personal thoughts on Trident. Firstly, I believe that from a moral and ethical standpoint it is so indiscriminate as a weapon – sophisticated targeting systems notwithstanding, it is so powerful that huge collateral damage to people and property is unavoidable – that no civilised country would ever use it.
Next, I don’t believe it is truly independent in that I cannot imagine the UK ever employing it without at least the tacit approval of the US (although I also understand that technically it can be used independently), nor do I think it is a universal deterrent – it didn’t deter the Argentinians in 1982, nor the Iraqis in 1990, nor the Taliban and/or Al Quaeda. Nor do I truly believe there exists a credible nuclear threat to UK interests from so-called rogue states like Iran or North Korea. (It may stop the UK being bullied by Russia in the final analysis but I’m not convinced of this).
I firmly believe that Trident is essentially a political weapon, not a military weapon, whose main function is to maintain the UK in the front rank of global powers and guarantee continuing national membership of the UN Security Council, NATO etc etc, a posture supported by successive Westminster governments over the past 50 years plus. Furthermore, its maintenance, and eventual replacement, places an enormous burden on the MoD’s budget and soaks up vast funds which would be far better spent on the UK’s conventional forces – more ships for the RN, better equipment for the army, better pay and conditions, and better provision for ex-service personnel when they leave the armed forces.
In summary, I think Trident is in fact a weapons system which has no conceivable use and which is far too costly when other priorities should prevail. Therefore I do not think it should be replaced when it comes to the end of its lifespan by anything similar. The best thing that could happen here is that the Vanguard class SSBNs should soldier (sailor?) on until they are obsolete and then not be replaced by the Dreadnought class, which should be cancelled forthwith.
Sadly, none of our political parties have the confidence and/or courage to promote anything than some reiteration of the status quo, apart from the SNP that is, and everyone knows that defence is hardly their strongest suit. So it’s more of the same, I’m afraid.
How will you vote now?