Monday 18 March 2013

Moving Into The Twenty-First Century

Kate Hudson writes:

It's almost three years since Nick Clegg made Trident a general election issue. He used the much-trumpeted televised leadership debates to outline a distinctive policy: no like-for-like replacement of the Trident nuclear weapons system. Gordon Brown and David Cameron had little more to offer than trite reruns of cold war verbiage, and Clegg's position chimed with a popular rejection of Trident which has been bubbling up over the past decade.

Early indications from Ed Miliband suggested that he would at least be open to discussion. In the leadership contest – where his brother took a gung-ho pro-nuclear stance – he said Trident should be part of a strategic defence review.

It's hard to fault that logic when the opportunity cost of Trident – £3bn a year currently and likely in excess of £100bn for a full-blown replacement – means cuts in the conventional military as well as swingeing attacks on public services.

Reports today [paywall] that Miliband will call for Trident to be scaled back, suggest that his willingness to change has borne fruit and that party policy may at last be moving into the 21st century. Although he appears to be backing one of the more minimal options for change – three subs instead of four with an end to round-the-clock patrols – this is nevertheless an important step forward.

And there is no doubt he will face strong opposition from some quarters within the party. For whilst the person on the street has been pretty open to moving on from nukes, it has been harder to drag defence policy forward in some top political circles. Lord West's recent pro-Trident statement is a case-in-point, as is Jim Murphy MP's hardline pro-nuclearism. But it is a measure of how much the terrain has shifted that the onus is now on defenders of Trident to justify replacement.

But Miliband will also win substantial support within the Labour party for this move. Former defence secretary Des Browne, who pushed the Trident resolution through parliament in 2007, has now changed his mind on replacement. He no longer feels that Trident fits the security bill, and advocates the "three subs not four" scaling-down option.

Of course, there are also many within the party who will be frustrated by the very cautious nature of this leadership shift. Trident is a key issue in the ongoing National Policy Forum, which feeds into the manifesto process. Critics will say that Labour's policy is tailing behind the Liberal Democrats, shaped by the anticipated outcomes of the government's forthcoming Trident Alternatives Review. And the critics will rightly ask where the non-nuclear option is in these debates. Why is Labour drawing the line to include only lesser nuclear options, rather than making disarmament part of the discussion? For Labour members north of the border, this will certainly be a factor, as the independence referendum looms and polls show an overwhelming majority against Trident.

The likelihood is that Labour and the Lib Dems will go into the next general election with a similar "step down" approach on Trident. With the decision on whether or not to replace Trident due in 2016 – postponed from 2012 because of differences between the coalition partners – Trident will again be a general election issue. It remains for the Conservative party to decide whether it will fight the election on a pro-nuclear status quo ticket, or itself opt for change. Given that its own National Security Strategy downgraded state-on-state nuclear attack to a level two threat, that's not as impossible as it may seem. Britain is inexorably moving away from nuclear weapons. The only question is how long it will take.

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