Richard Norton-Taylor writes:
It might be perfectly understandable why Labour party delegates decided to bottle out of a conference debate on Trident, Britain’s most powerful, most expensive, most irrelevant and most useless weapon.
Yet the attempt to suppress debate on the utility of Britain’s nuclear arsenal is undemocratic. And a discussion is needed, desperately.
“The question of Trident renewal becomes a symbol for Britain in the world, for patriotism, or for enlightened foreign policy,” says Michael Clarke, director general of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) thinktank.
He adds: “The one thing that politicians don’t address when they talk about Britain’s nuclear weapons is how they do, or don’t, actually figure in practical defence policy for the next 10 or 20 years. It is really very depressing.”
In his memoirs, Tony Blair said of Trident: “The expense is huge and the utility … non-existent in terms of military use.”
He said he could clearly see the force of the “common sense and practical argument” against Trident, but in the end he thought that giving it up would be “too big a downgrading of our status as a nation”.
It is about symbols and sacred cows.
The arguments are not simply ones of left versus right. In Brighton on Sunday, unions who are pro-Trident on employment grounds voted against a debate, though their skilled workforce could readily switch to building submarines or warships that are not armed with nuclear-armed ballistic missiles.
Crispin Blunt, the Tory chairman of the Commons foreign affairs committee, says: “It is no longer sensible to put aside the money [for Trident] for the size of nation we are. At what point is it no longer value for money for the UK? In my judgment we have reached that point.”
Max Hastings, a historian and respected commentator on military affairs, chastised the government in yesterday’s Sunday Times, accusing it of “indefensibly” ruling out of the debate on the forthcoming strategic defence and security review (SDSR) “the huge commitment to replace Trident”.
Hastings added that the navy’s new aircraft carriers might have provided jobs for Scottish shipyards but were “less relevant to Britain’s security needs than is the Great Pyramid”.
“When you are short of money, you should put everything in the melting pot,” says Major General Patrick Cordingley, former commander of the 7th Armoured Brigade, the Desert Rats.
He argues that Trident should not be ringfenced and the costs should be weighed up against new ships, planes, tanks and infantry.
The defence secretary, Michael Fallon, made clear in a keynote speech to RUSI last week that the SDSR would, as he put it, “certainly be confirming the importance of a nuclear deterrent”.
Yet he also made plain that no agreement had been reached on such urgent problems as the shortfall in the number and capabilities of RAF strike aircraft and skilled navy personnel.
According to the latest MoD figures, the navy is short of 620 specialists, including submarine engineers who would be needed for Trident.
Costs of US F-35B Lightning II fighter jets planned for the carriers have soared and numbers have been drastically scaled back.
The RAF is having to rely on 30-year-old Tornados against Isis fighters because its newest strike aircraft, the Typhoon, is not yet equipped with Brimstone missiles, the most accurate weapon in the RAF’s armoury.
Ministers say that Trident, estimated to cost £100bn over a 30-year lifespan, will be needed as merely as an insurance policy in an “uncertain” world.
Yet would a similar argument ever be used for hospitals, or for any civil, as opposed to military, contingency?
Trident is supposed to be a deterrent: the point is, it is there so it would never be used.
Yet its credibility depends on whether a rational British prime minister would ever take an independent decision to order Trident submarine commanders to launch a nuclear weapon.
That belongs to the realm of fantasy.