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16 July 2016updated 09 Sep 2021 11:15am

Debating Trident now is a nakedly political act

There is no urgent need for a debate about the UK's nuclear programme. 

By Andrew Dorman

Amongst all the political shenanigans, it would be easy to miss next week’s Parliamentary votes on renewing the UK’s Trident nuclear programme. 

There is no formal requirement for the debates to take place – or for the government to heed the result. 

Officially, the reason for having this nuclear debate now – immediately prior to the summer recess – is to gain Parliament’s endorsement for the Government’s decision to renew the existing force of four Trident submarines. In reality, the debate is motivated by three political factors – two are largely domestic and one mainly external – which reflect the current political scene in the UK rather than the question of the defence of the nation. 

First, it is politically advantageous for the Conservative government to have this debate. The Labour opposition are in a state of disarray, with the issue of nuclear replacement symptomatic of the divisions between the leadership under Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour MPs, the unions and the wider membership. It allows the government to reinforce the message to the electorate that Labour are, as they were in the 1980s, “unsafe” – and by inference unelectable – on the defence issue alone.  

Second, it provides a clear and convenient opportunity for the new Conservative Prime Minister to set her stall out on foreign and security policy. The debate enables Theresa May to firmly establish herself as the safe pair of hands she campaigned on, uniting her  party against those on the opposition benches in favour of unilateralism.

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Thirdly, the debate is about messaging beyond Parliament and Whitehall. In the wake of the vote to leave the European Union a vote to replace Trident can reassure Britain’s NATO allies that the UK remains committed to the alliance and will not become the ‘nuclear Switzerland’ some have feared. It also sends a message more widely to allies and potential opponents that the UK government does not intend to withdraw from the world stage as it has been accused of in recent years. Similarly, at home, it attempts to reinforce the message that the UK will remain a global actor even after the Brexit vote  – thus providing reassurance in the wake of the vote. 

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All this strategic messaging may look entirely sensible, and the party politics understandable. But there is one major problem. In the post-Brexit world with sterling at a low point against the dollar, estimates that the UK’s GDP is set to fall over the next decade and concerns of a second referendum on Scottish independence, the timing could not be worse. 

Last November’s 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review was based on the premise that, over the preceding five years, the world had become a far more dangerous place. Yet it also announced delays in reconfiguring the UK’s armed forces post-Iraq and Afghanistan wars by a further five years to 2025. 

The renewal of Trident no longer looks affordable. Post-Brexit, the UK’s defence equipment programme is confronted with footing the bill for a number of increasingly costly programmes from the US – including nine Boeing P8A maritime patrol aircraft (£3bn+) and 50 new AH64E Apache attack helicopters ($2bn) announced just this week. At the same time, defence and security pegged at 2 per cent of GDP looks like it will fall. And, if Scottish independence is indeed a possibility, then the future of the nuclear bases at Faslane and Coulport look uncertain. 

If ever there was  a good moment to consider basing Trident outside of Scotland, it would be now – before the proposed £500m expenditure on infrastructure at Faslane is spent.

Rather than committing to a nuclear future now, conducting a new, post-Brexit, defence and security review looks a far more sensible option, from which the nuclear decision can follow. 

Andrew M Dorman is Professor of International Security at King’s College London and the commissioning editor for international affairs at Chatham House.