Should the government reconsider its decision to proceed with Trident?

‘With Trident we could obliterate the whole of Eastern Europe’, protests Sir Humphrey Appleby in a classic episode of Yes Prime Minister when Jim Hacker tells him that he is scrapping Trident. ‘It’s a bluff. I probably wouldn’t use it’, says Hacker. But our enemies don’t know that, responds Sir Humphrey. Besides, he concludes, ‘It all boils down to one simple issue. Don’t you believe that Britain should have the best? If you walked into a nuclear missile showroom, you would buy Trident. … In the world of nuclear missiles it is the Savile Row suit, the Rolls Royce Corniche, the Chateau Lafitte 1945. It is the nuclear missile Harrods would sell.’

Judging by Philip Hammond’s recent announcement of £350 million funding for the renewal of Trident, Sir Humphrey’s logic is very much alive in Britain today. Despite austerity, cuts across the board, and an economy barely limping out of recession, the government seems to have plenty in its coffers for weapons we will certainly never use, whose purpose we don’t really understand, and which appear utterly irrelevant to the international security environment of the modern world.

The government’s professed logic is two-fold: the deterrent will keep Britain safe, and it will create jobs. ‘Our continuous submarine-based nuclear deterrent is the ultimate safeguard of our national security’, Mr Hammond said, adding that, ‘This latest expenditure for the next generation of nuclear-armed submarines is an investment in UK security and the British economy, sustaining high-quality jobs and vital skills.’

The security arguments made sense during the Cold War. Today they are much weaker. It is not at all clear whom the deterrent is meant to deter. If the worry is not any current threat but the possibility of some future threat emerging, then a submarine-based deterrent which is continuously at sea is superfluous. Proposals for a more modest nuclear force which would remain inactive until such time as it is needed would be far more appropriate. Rather than jumping the gun, waiting for the results of the current nuclear review would make a great deal of sense.

In any case, at a time when the country’s conventional armed forces are in their second decade of intensive overseas operations, cutting those armed forces while buying a new generation of nuclear weapons which can have no role in the type of wars which Britain actually fights is more than a little perverse.

As for Mr Hammond’s claim that Trident will create jobs, the less said the better. Military Keynesianism should have no place in modern economic discourse. For sure, the inhabitants of Faslane will gain employment, but the economy elsewhere will suffer as a result. The government surely knows this.

How then can one explain the British government’s baffling policy? First, Conservatives retain a deep, blind belief in nuclear power dating from the Cold War era. Conservative opposition to the Labour party’s policy of unilateralism was one of the things which marked out Conservatives in the 1980s when Cameron and others were coming of age. Nuclear weapons are an article of faith.

Second, nuclear weapons are not really about deterrence at all. They are about prestige. Britons cling to an obsolete view that the measure of greatness is military power. Since nuclear weapons are the ultimate in military power, they are, people assume, an essential element of being a great nation. This is a quite outdated notion. Germany, Italy, Canada, and many other medium-ranked countries enjoy wealth, prestige, and influence without needing nuclear weapons. Britain could too. The government should reconsider its decision.

Paul Robinson is the author of ‘The fat red line: time to cut British defence spending’ in Sharper Axes, Lower Taxes: Big Steps to a Smaller State.

Member of the Advisory Council

Professor Colin Robinson is a member of the Advisory Council to the Institute of Economic Affairs and is the Chair of Economics at the University of Surrey. Colin is the sole or joint author of over 25 books and monographs and about 160 journal papers, including studies of the international oil, coal and gas markets, North Sea oil and gas, nuclear energy in Britain, British energy policy, privatisation, utility regulation and the British water industry. He continues to write regularly and is now Emeritus Professor of Economics.

5 thoughts on “Should the government reconsider its decision to proceed with Trident?”

  1. Posted 01/11/2012 at 12:34 | Permalink

    I have no objection to cutting UK military expenditure but why do it at the one end of the military spectrum that is reasonably efficient? Trident is cheap and its the best. I personally don’t think we should be waging wars overseas, I believe the military should be for defence and Trident is the epitome of a defensive weapon.

  2. Posted 01/11/2012 at 15:12 | Permalink

    I agree that Mr Hammond is entirely erroneous regarding the ‘job creation’ aspects of Trident. Unfortunately, the author entirely misunderstands the point of thermonuclear weapons – they are not intended to be used! This is also true of many of the UK’s high-end conventional weapons systems to a degree. It may not be a rationale one agrees with, but it is one nonetheless (politicians don’t use it as a rationale because most people seem incapable of comprehending it). As far as the UK’s armed forces go, Trident is the last thing that should be cut because it delivers the most powerful weapon and the greatest enhancement of the UK’s power-political position – again, one may not agree with that but that does not remove the essential truth of it – for the cost. The UK’s conventional forces are, by contrast, extremely costly for the benefits they deliver. Thousands of soldiers (and their housing, pay, pensions etc) are very expensive and far less capable of delivering political benefit – the conflict in Afghanistan, which is about to end, probably did more harm than good to the UK’s security. Also, the Army has failed in its mission in Afghanistan – arguably – and Iraq and has distracted the UK from far more substantial issues. Much fat could also be cut off the RAF at least, and the best way to trim the defence budget would probably be to eliminate most of it, reallocating the portions to the Army and Navy accordingly, thus also saving on functional duplication.

  3. Posted 02/11/2012 at 00:13 | Permalink

    Germany, Italy, Canada and the other medium ranked countries don’t have a permanent position in the UN security council, the only other exception being the French who also have nuclear weapons.

  4. Posted 02/11/2012 at 11:12 | Permalink

    “nuclear weapons are not really about deterrence at all. They are about prestige”

    Put another way, our nuclear arsenal isn’t about deterring our enemies, but keeping up with the French.

    Surprisingly, most people I know think that’s worth spending £20 billion on. But then, most people thought Concorde was worth the money because we got so much prestige, too.

  5. Posted 03/12/2012 at 16:49 | Permalink

    Faced-down ‘lower-life-form’ 1996 [he found-God Kirkham Prison 1995]; typical-of-those ready-to-detonate ‘liberated’ warhead likely already-here, in-the-UK.

    Trident does NOT-work; with no-launch-detection… expect-more [Blair…] overwhelming-evidence. With London… vaporised expect another Valentines-Day Churchill-Dresden.

    ‘Nut-jobs’ are-NOT snout-in-trough politician’s; ready-to-die, litigation is-pointless.

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