The current state of play with Britain’s nuclear weapons is one of flux. As a party, the Liberal Democrats official policy is to look at the requirements of nuclear deterrence and examine the current cost of Trident and the Successor submarine project with are to replace the Vanguard boats, comparing these with other nuclear alternatives. Such alternatives could be submarine-launched Cruise missiles for example.
One will notice that not on the agenda is the option for a non-nuclear-armed United Kingdom. If we LibDems are to have a distinctive message on Trident for the 2015 General Elections, surely it would be reasonable for us to have this option incorporated into our manifesto; especially since it is not possible currently for MPs to scrutinise the real costs. To explain further.
On Sunday, the Say No to Trident group, a grass-roots LibDem organisation founded on ACT in 2009 held our second annual fringe meeting at conference. Dr Peter Burt of the Nuclear Information Service (NIS) told the packed room that it was currently not possible for either parliament or the public to examine spending plans for Successor or any related projects such as upgrades to the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE). Using the cover of EU legislation, Dr Burt claimed that the Ministry of Defence, who since 2010 are now responsible for funding Britain’s nuclear deterrent, are directly blocking requests on finances.
It was only through sterling work by Greenpeace through Freedom of Information questions that it has come to light that work is continuing on the Successor boats via the Initial Gate spending plans. On the government’s own current figure of £25billion, this would allow up £3.75billion to be spent on the project before the Main Gate of 2016. Last year our own federal president Tim Farron claimed a famous victory in the delay of the final decision, announcing that Trident would not be passed “on our watch.” In light of the continued spending, on our watch, this victory is sounding rather hollow.
Stephen Gilbert MP, also speaking at the SNTT fringe, called for MPs to be allowed to have the spending figures available and also publication of the Liberal Democrat report on the alternatives. Currently the report that is being put together by Nick Harvey MP, Armed Forces Minister, is not intended for general publication. Full transparency – with the caveat of national security- is the only way Parliament can have an informed debate on this (or indeed any) issue.
The final speaker, Kate Hudson of CND, welcomed the initiative of the Liberal Democrat review and in discussions with Nick Harvey has pressed him to enlarge its parameters to include all options, including a non-nuclear Britain. This view has support among voters; for the past three years the majority of those polls have been for the scrapping of Britain’s deterrent with the highest majority being aged twenty eight and under.
I remember a report on the Today Programme from 2010. The point was made that ownership of nuclear weapons is not a military necessity; it is a political decision. Thus the discussions on the way forward ought to be in the political realm and not left to officials. Whether one supports the concept of a nuclear deterrent or not; think that the world should disarm on a multilateral basis or that Britain should lead the way unilaterally, there are things that we can all agree upon.
- It is right that members of Parliament should have the facts available to them in order to make a rational decision. Currently that is not the case, neither with the MoD financial figures nor with the intended Liberal Democrat report.
- It ought to be Liberal Democrat ministers and MPs that leads the scrutiny and debate. With a few honourable exceptions, the Conservative mindset is welded firmly shut when it comes to Trident and Labour is split down the middle. We Liberal Democrats are the only parliamentary party united in seeking alternatives and that should mean all alternatives; not just keeping a credible deterrent.
I call upon Liberal Democrat supporters, members and activists, to lobby our MPs and ministers on the issue of transparency when it comes to these issues on nuclear weapons. It is staggering that there are still those in the civil service (indeed in government too) who still think that the money, especially at this time of global and national austerity, can somehow be above scrutiny.