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We need to talk about Trident

If some senior Tories are questioning the point of Trident then surely Gordon Brown should live up t

It's two years since Parliament voted to start the process of replacing Britain's Trident nuclear weapons system. Despite the 'yes' vote, opposition was substantial within Parliament – including a massive backbench Labour rebellion. Outside Parliament, it was clear that 'No' was by far the majority sentiment. 72 per cent of those polled, just days before the vote in March 2007, opposed replacing Trident at that time.

That was the state of play in the last heady days before the credit crunch really kicked in. Even then, the cost of Trident replacement was a major factor in the public mind. The news that the total cost of a new system – when including life-time running costs - was likely to top £76 billion was a killer fact for many. Those faced with government spending cuts and the closure of local services were already counting the opportunity cost of a new generation of British weapons of mass destruction. The TUC Congress in 2006 voted overwhelmingly against Trident replacement, primarily because of the costs involved.

Since then it has become clear – thanks to a Public Accounts Committee investigation – that even the government's cost estimates at the time of the vote were only 'ball park figures'. It seems that cost and time over-runs are almost certain. In any case, the continuing costs of the existing system for the next twenty-odd years should be added to the tally too. In sum, we are talking in excess of £100 billion to fund Britain's nuclear habit.

Ever larger numbers of people are coming to the conclusion that this is not a price worth paying. And they are coming from an ever-wider political spectrum. Hard on the heels of former Labour minister Stephen Byers questioning the justifiability of such spending, leading Conservatives have now also shown that they are open to rethinking Trident and its replacement. A major debate is now reportedly under way in the shadow cabinet.

David Davis has written, in the Financial Times, that it is time for the Tories to look at their own 'sacred cows'. Davis questioned the justification for the 'wholesale upgrade' of a system designed to retaliate after a full-scale Soviet attack when today's likeliest adversary would be a 'much smaller, less sophisticated state. Should not the costs reflect this?'

David Cameron subsequently refused to rule out the possibility of a shift in Tory policy on nuclear weapons, promising a major strategic defence review once in office. He is being encouraged to rethink by senior backbench figures, most notably by James Arbuthnot, who is Chair of the House of Commons Defence Select Committee. Arbuthnot, who led scrutiny of Trident's replacement in the run up to the Parliamentary vote, described weapons system as of 'doubtful usefulness', but at that time opposed unilateral disarmament. Arbuthnot has since said that he thinks the debate on Britain's nuclear weapons should now be reopened.

Of course costs are not the only reasons to oppose the replacement of Trident. The key question has to be, does it actually add to our security and defence?

One strong perspective on this has recently come from retired senior military figures – two generals and a field-marshal. Trident, they observed in a letter to The Times, is militarily useless and should be scrapped. So if it is military useless, does it contribute to our security in other non-military ways? On the contrary. According to Kofi Annan, when Secretary General of the UN, while powerful countries say they need nuclear weapons for their security, other countries will come to the same conclusion. In other words, our continued insistence that the possession of nuclear weapons makes us safe, will encourage other states to proliferate. That would appear to be the view of North Korea: they think nuclear weapons will deter attack on their country and constitute a powerful international bargaining chip. That is an attitude that we reinforce and perpetuate at our peril.

In fact, when Gordon Brown became prime minister, Britain’s nuclear policy changed subtly but significantly for the better. It recognised the reality of the link between the failure of nuclear weapons states to disarm and the increased likelihood of nuclear weapons proliferation. Numerous statements by leading government figures reinforced this shift away from Blair’s erroneous view that we are legally entitled to keep nuclear weapons. Since then, Brown has been big on the idea of ‘leading’ global disarmament initiatives, although his thunder has been somewhat stolen by Obama, who is actually doing something about it.

Brown’s key weakness is that he talks the disarmament talk, but won’t deal with Trident. Sooner or later he will have to realise this is a contradictory position. When the majority of the British people – including Tory politicians and senior military figures - have come to the view that Trident should be reconsidered – or even axed – then Gordon Brown should not be holding back.

Photo: Getty Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.