To be very, very clear, I am not convinced by the case for renewing Trident. However, I am struck by the poor quality of the debate – simplistic arguments are made either way, when in fact the issue is highly complex. It would be helpful if we could at least accept there is a case either way.
The case against can seem fairly clear cut. We are being asked to spend over £100bn (the UK Government’s annual spend is around eight times that, although of course this is a one-off for a generation) for a series of weapon launchers which:
- we are never going to fire;
- does not act as a deterrent (after all, New York in 2001, London in 2005 and Paris in 2015 all suffered horrific terrorist attacks despite being the largest city in a nuclear power); and
- fundamentally makes the world less safe.
That case may be a winner. However, it is worth noting it is not quite as simple as this. Let us assume the UK opts unilaterally to give up the capacity to fire nuclear weapons immediately (let us also assume that is the effect, in practice, of not renewing Trident). Taking the above bullet points backwards…
The assumption that not possessing dangerous weapons makes the world safer seems straightforward, but is in fact almost certainly wrong. The fact is nuclear weapons (and the capacity to develop them) exist. If the UK Government gives its up, then the proportion of nuclear weapons held (or, in future, potentially held) by undemocratic states or outright rogue groups increases. It is far from clear a world in which the proportion of nuclear weapons held by North Korea, Israel, Pakistan or Iran rises is in fact a safer world.
The argument that nuclear weapons are not a deterrent may be accurate, but also needs to be challenged in the field of proper debate. The only country known openly to have given up the nuclear weapons which existed on its territory was Ukraine. That’s the country which has just been invaded by its neighbour Russia, having its cities destabilised and one of its regions annexed (all while hundreds of Western, predominantly Dutch and Australian, lives were lost as a result of this conflict). It is at least debatable whether Russia would have risked such action had Ukraine retained its nuclear threat (and thus whether Ukraine would have been destabilised and local and Western lives lost). Russia was, of course, a signatory to the agreement that Ukraine would be protected (as we the United States and the United Kingdom), and yet it was the one creating the trouble while the other two did nothing. This example hardly makes the case for giving up an independent deterrent compelling.
The case that we are never actually going to fire the weapons is, it could be argued, scarcely the point. They are not there to be fired; they are there to make sure no one else fires them! Put that way, the case for taking responsibility for possession of them – not least in a world where more and more states and groups will have access to them – becomes at least worth considering.
To be clear, I am by no means convinced that over £100 billion for submarines is a price worth paying in the post-Cold War era – not least when alliances with the United States or France (or both) are available. But nor, to be honest, am I totally convinced by the frankly lightweight arguments against. (I am not convinced either, mind, that the need to renew even exists – during the General Election one DUP candidate and now Minister said it was to do with nuclear fusion, but you will have to excuse me not taking lessons in science from a party which thinks the Earth is 6000 years old…)
This is yet another example in the Twitter era of simplistic cases being made on complex issues. Regardless of our view, on important issues like this, we need to do better than that!