America tells Britain to pick: replace Trident, or be a "real military partner"

It's just not possible for us to have both at the same time, writes the CND's Kate Hudson.

As debate continues about the replacement of the Trident nuclear weapons system, many just assume that the United States automatically supports a new generation of British nuclear weapons – or even that they may not "let us" disarm. Those backing the retention and replacement of Britain’s nuclear arsenal often cite our obligations as part of NATO – a US-led nuclear alliance – and of our commitment to our allies in "an uncertain world". Indeed some even see nuclear cooperation with the US as the keystone in our "special relationship". 

So it was interesting to read the following passage in the International Herald Tribune last week – "NATO at a turning point" (12 April) – under the heading "Sharing Capabilities":

As for Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron is insisting on keeping a nuclear deterrent on a new generation of submarines, even as U.S. officials are pushing London to consider abandoning the idea. As one U.S. official said privately, "They can’t afford Trident, and they need to confront the choice: either they can be a nuclear power and nothing else or a real military partner."

As the article clearly conveys, there are many in high places that would prefer Britain to be a well-equipped and viable conventional military force, capable of twenty-first century interventions and keeping up the European end of NATO military capacity. This lays bare one of the main arguments – whether implicit or explicit – put forward by those in favour of Trident replacement: that while times may be hard economically, maintaining a nuclear arsenal is the strong choice for defence policy. So it’s interesting to note that allies may see it as making us a bit of a military lame duck.

In fact, such a view is increasingly widespread here, as well as in the US, given the drastic reductions in personnel and capabilities as a result of cuts to the Ministry of Defence (MoD). 

In the first instance, no-one should be in any doubt about the impact of Trident spending on UK defence equipment budgets. 

The Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) has said that by the early 2020s, 'submarine and deterrent spending is set to account for around 35% of the total core procurement budget'. And by 2017, cuts to defence personnel will see regular troops reduced from 102,000 to 82,000 – with increasing reliance on reservists.

We are now starting to see previously pro-Trident news outlets such as London's Evening Standard and the Telegraph raising concerns about the government’s approach to defence priorities. The Evening Standard has written two excellent editorials on the question of Trident and defence spending, here and here, stating:

'Defence must take its share of cuts and choices must be made. Something has to give: it is worth asking again whether renewing the Trident nuclear missile system, on which design work alone will cost £350 million, is as good a use of defence funds as more boots on the ground. Given our present challenges, the answer must be no.'

While many are still right to put forward the moral and humanitarian arguments against nuclear weapons, they are increasingly joined by those who see the strength in the economic and strategic arguments against Trident. These are people with serious concerns about the thinking behind the government’s defence spending and security strategy. And of course they’re right that the costs will be astronomical and devastating. 

The MoD puts the build cost of the "Successor" submarines alone at £20-25bn, which, given its track record of delivering major projects around 40 per cent over budget, might be more accurately predicted as £28-35bn. The maintenance costs will be £3bn per annum (not factoring in inflation) for 30-40 years according to former Minister for the Armed Forces Sir Nick Harvey MP. Then there’s the estimated £25bn decommissioning cost. 

£100bn is now a considerable underestimation of Trident replacement costs. It is clear it will be more.

But even without the grim economics, Trident replacement seems at odds with both government analysis – the National Security Strategy downgraded the threat of state-on-state nuclear attack – and with the ability to fulfil government policy. As the Standard rightly points out:

The Foreign Secretary talks tough about North Africa and David Cameron regards Libya as one of his foreign policy successes. Yet they must know that interventions like that in Libya, or a British version of France’s exploits in Mali, would be impossible with drastic reductions in troop numbers.

And this is precisely what is being called into question in the US administration. What use is an ally which becomes incapable of action through a dearth of personnel and equipment? How would Britain’s nuclear weapons play any useful role in US operations? 

This dilemma should be ringing alarm bells for Labour, whose shadow Defence Minister Jim Murphy MP recently outlined his vision of a flexible, dynamic, military with "adaptable units" to head off emerging security threats around the world. Labour needs to understand that it will not be able to afford both that and Trident.  

The debate on Trident will continue, to the general election and beyond. But those who still think we are well-served by nuclear weapons would do well to heed the view of former Conservative Defence Secretary Michael Portillo: Trident, he says, is completely past its sell-by date and a tremendous waste of money. I can’t say fairer than that.

People stand on a Trident submarine. Photograph: Getty Images
Andy Mitchell/Wikimedia
Show Hide image

In the Outback, the waiters come from East Grimsby

One of the many great things about Australia is a genuine, if slightly abrasive egalitarianism.

The atmosphere in the Red Ochre Grill is distinctly chilly – not exactly what you would expect in the middle of a desert. There was an early-bird discount of 20 per cent for guests of the attached hotel, if you booked before 6pm for a table before 7pm; but we screwed up by 15 minutes and the maître d’ was emphatic: we’d have to pay full whack. Now I’ve been sitting over the remains of my kangaroo and macadamia salad for a full half-hour, waiting to pay the inflated bill, and my temperature has been plummeting the while. There’s nothing more real than this sort of tourist gouging – and Alice Springs is a tourist town, among other things. A tourist town serviced by tourists: mostly backpackers, most of whom in turn are from Britain.

Last night in Casa Nostra, a Calabrian restaurant sited on the parched banks of the Todd River (it flows about once in an average lifetime), we were served by a nice young man from Aberdeen, and the many miles between the Grey City and the Red Centre were eliminated by his opening remark: “I read something you wrote recently about Scots independence. I myself am not in favour.” Then this morning, at a café in the mall, he popped up again – working a second job, this time with his Edinburghian girlfriend, so they can gather a sufficient sum to keep on truckin’.

All down the Stuart Highway (known colloquially as “The Track”) from Darwin, we’ve been waited on by young folk from East Grinstead and Letterkenny, Dewsbury and Great Malvern. They come on working visas, not available to the nationals of countries which aren’t either historic (Britain) or contemporary (United States) overlords of Australia, and work these jobs out in the back of Bourke, where young Australians are loath to go. To the backpackers the Outback is a mythic realm suffused with wonder, presided over by an ancient people steeped in sorcery who are also wizard at graphic arts – but to most young Australians it’s too much of nothing, while their largely deracinated and welfare-dependent Aboriginal fellow citizens are a source of perplexity, shame and ignorance.

All this is running through my mind as I ask the waitress where she’s from. “Israel,” she replies. “Ah,” I say, “I didn’t know you could get a working visa for Australia on an Israeli passport.” “You can’t,” she says, “but my parents are American and I also have a US passport.” Of course it’s not this young woman’s fault in any way, but there is still something slightly nauseating about this: the Americans have a spy base outside Alice, called Pine Gap. So it is that geostrategic “considerations” and neoliberal “economics” vibrate through the rudaceous rocks of the MacDonnell Ranges as our elders sing up a nightmarish dreamtime.

“Ah, well,” I say, “you must be used to desert country, then.” “Ye-es,” the Israeli waitress bridles a little, “but Israel isn’t as desert as here.”

One of the many great things about Australia – where I’ve spent a fair amount of time over the years, my first sojourn being on a working visa exactly like the waitress’s – is a genuine, if slightly abrasive egalitarianism: the original Digger mentality of mateship suffuses even the 21st-century globalised food industry, such that tipping is frowned on as shameless evidence of a de haut en bas attitude. These young folk are being paid adequately by the establishment, but that’s the problem: they have no incentive to get the tucker to the table quickly, and they aren’t trained. Thus my long wait for the undiscounted bill has become tangled up in my mind with all the world’s woes, and I snap back: “I’ll thank you not to lecture me on geography, young lady. Your state has been snaffling up deserts throughout my lifetime, beginning with the Sinai. Granted, its most recent acquisitions have been relatively piecemeal ones on the West Bank of the Jordan, and only semi-arid, but still . . .”

Later on, my eldest takes me to task for this solecism, bringing the misfortunes of the Middle East into the heart of the great southern continent, but I am unrepentant. True, the parallels aren’t exact, but both Israel/Palestine and Australia are polities that have pursued the old colonialist agenda under modern dispensations; both are states in which there’s a grotesque disparity between the conditions in which the indigenous people survive and those that the expropriating incomers enjoy. The Red Ochre Grill, with its pseudo-gourmet dishes confected out of “native” ingredients (emu, kangaroo and camel meat mostly), is a perfect instance of this phenomenon, a sort of gustatory colonialism, if you will.

Outback of the restaurant, in the sandy slough of the Todd River’s bed, the “Long Grass people” – Aboriginals bushed by the grog – stand in for benighted Palestinians. The rates of alcoholism among them are eclipsed only by those of diabetes. An old Australian friend in Darwin put it to me thus: “As you drive south to the Alice you’re travelling along a broad highway of renal failure.”

True, from time out of mind all sorts of holidays have been taken in other people’s misery. Yet there is something particularly queasy about whites working away in the well-appointed restaurant while, out in the darkness, welfare-dependent blacks are killing themselves with Coca-Cola.

Next week: On Location

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism