Britain debates its nuclear future

The British general elections are less than four weeks away and the tension is rising, with some politicians turning political issues into personal attacks. It is the case of the conservative Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, who on Thursday has accused the Labour’s leader Ed Miliband of being capable of stabbing Britain’s national interest in the back in the same way he did his brother to gain the Labour leadership. The Defence Secretary was referring to the allegation that Miliband would abandon the renewal of Britain’s nuclear deterrent in order to have the support of the Scottish National Party (SNP) and become Prime Minister.

REUTERS/Phil Noble

Petty politics aside, the replacement of the Trident ballistic missile submarines is one of the most important issues the new government will have to face. The current fleet of four boats is slowly wearing out and the decision on whether to renew it has already been postponed once in 2010. One recent poll revealed that 81% of 500 general election candidates opposed the renewal. The SNP has long been in favour of unilateral nuclear disarmament and wants the Faslane base in Scotland, which is where the subs sails from, closed as soon as possible. The SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon has vowed never to vote in support of the renewal of Trident and, although she said her party is willing to support Labour’s policies on an issue-by-issue basis, an official coalition with a Labour is highly unlikely if the latter does not drop its support for Trident. Labour’s official policy is to maintain the deterrent, despite a survey by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) found that 75% of the Labour MPs would actually rather not to renew Trident. Miliband has explicitly said that he would not trade Trident for SNP support.

The country is quite divided on this issue. Those supporting the dismantling of the UK’s nuclear capabilities argue that Britain could set the example, being the first permanent member of the UN Security Council to give up its nuclear weapon, and to promote change in the nuclear club from within. They also claim that having nuclear weapons diverts resources and attention from tackling more urgent security threats, such as climate and environmental destruction. On the other hand, those who support the maintenance of the nuclear deterrent see it as necessary in a world where even rough states have access to nuclear weapons. Was the UK to dismantle its nuclear capabilities, it would also appear weak on the global stage.

About two-thirds of voters say Britain should retain its deterrent in opinion polls, but more than half would rather have a cheaper, less powerful version of it. At the moment, Britain has four submarines and replacing them would cost £40bn over the next nine years and account for 37%of all projected weapon procurements. The next government could choose to replace only three submarines, or, as the Liberal Democrats suggest, only two.

Crucially, the Trident renewal is a political objective, not a military one, and the decision would have to be left to military chiefs there would be a real debate about its worth, say experienced defence experts.

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