The Trident Argument: historic deterrent or symbol of power?

One of the most significant of many divisions between the partners in Britain’s coalition government is over Trident, the nuclear programme committed to maintaining a continuous British nuclear deterrent. One of four nuclear-capable submarines, based at the Clyde Naval Base in Scotland, is always on patrol at sea to provide such a deterrent and to react accordingly should the need arise.

David Cameron and the Conservatives want to replace Trident with a similar system costing some £20bn that will ensure Britain retains the “ultimate weapon of defence” in an increasingly hostile world. The Liberal Democrats, on the other hand, would like to scrap the Trident programme, or at least seek a cheaper nuclear alternative. To make matters even more complex, the Scottish National Party (SNP), which hopes to hold a referendum on independence next year, is committed to eradicating any nuclear presence from Scottish waters should independence be attained.

One of the four Vanguard-class nuclear submarines operating under Trident
One of the four Vanguard-class nuclear submarines operating under Trident

Britain took advantage of Allied usurpation of German research, and additional development under the Manhattan Project, to become one of the first nation’s capable of delivering a nuclear weapon. Ever since Operation Hurricane, Britain’s first nuclear test, in 1952 the country has been at the forefront of world politics. When the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons was first ratified in 1968, Britain was one of the designated “Nuclear Weapons States”, an exclusive symbol. Even after the extension of the treaty to include China and France in 1992, Britain retains such a privilege along with the USA and Russia.

Operation Hurricane signified British intent to remain at the forefront of global politics
Operation Hurricane signified British intent to remain at the forefront of global politics

It is no coincidence that these “official” nuclearised states are those holding permanent seats on the UN Security Council, giving their governments and ambassadors huge say on major global security issues. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that Mr Cameron, and the Labour shadow cabinet, wish to retain the British nuclear deterrence. Why would they jeopardise decreasing the country’s prestige? Britain no longer has the same authority on the international stage since its relative economic decline began a couple of decades ago and rapidly development country’s in South America and East Asia began to subsume its industry. Being a “nuclear state” is one of the few status symbols remaining to Britain and is crucial in it retaining a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.

For, realistically, what is the effective use of the nuclear deterrent in today’s world? The era of a Soviet threat during the Cold War is gone. Since the USSR disintegrated, the deterrent has been unnecessary in practice.

Soviet nuclear missiles no longer posed a realistic threat to the UK
Soviet nuclear missiles no longer posed a realistic threat to the UK

Tony Blair’s Iraq justification, leading the public to believe that Saddam Hussein was developing nuclear weapons capable of striking Britain, was nothing but a fabrication. Even now, concerns over North Korean nuclear mania are unfounded in Britain because of the distance between the two states. Similarly, Iran is nowhere near achieving both the ballistic and nuclear enrichment capabilities to threaten Western Europe, even should the Islamic Republic lurk with menacing intent. Unless the French suddenly turn hostile then the prospect of a nuclear attack or similar is at best minute.

Cameron’s arguments that Trident is being retained to defend Britain against the nasty habits of pariah states is a weak one. Yet he cannot simply say that Britain is retaining its nuclear deterrent for prestige, for such an acknowledgement would testify to the country’s precarious standing in the global pecking order. Similarly, it is unlikely to go down well with a population currently being subjected to an array of public spending cuts.

Cameron is veiling his true interests but they are, ultimately, in the interests of Great Britain. For the UK to remain at the forefront of global affairs, which holds economic as well as symbolic credence, Trident must be retained. It is a statement of intent that, should it be required, Britain will use its unique capabilities in the interest of preserving global security. Let us hope that the Scots don’t win independence and boot the Trident programme out of the Clyde!

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Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

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