A general election will be called this week, and we can look forward to a month of frantic political campaigning before voting day on May 6th . With the economy still very weak it's a certainty that all the political parties will be focusing on their economic policies Cuts in spending to balance the national deficit are likely to be a hot topic of debate, but I'm willing to bet that the three main parties will want to say very much less about nuclear weapons and Trident replacement.
Let's start with Labour, as current holders of the office of government. Labour nailed their colours to the mast on nuclear weapons in 2007, when the Blair government forced a vote on replacing Trident. Although 95 Labour MPs voted for a rebel amendment – the biggest revolt since the invasion of Iraq – the majority of Labour MPs had no difficulty in supporting Blair and voting to replace Trident with a new generation of British nuclear weapons. This had as much to do with showing that New Labour was no longer the pro-disarmament party of the 1980s as it did with any pressing need to make a decision.
As opponents of Trident replacement pointed out at the time, the vote was premature, and a lot has happened since 2007. In autumn 2008 the banking crisis punched a massive hole in the economy which it will take years to repair, and we are facing difficult choices over priorities for public spending. There aren't many votes in saying that you want to spend taxpayers money on new nuclear weapons and at the same time close schools and hospitals, but Labour have painted themselves into a corner with a policy that won't give them the choice to do much else.
The political wind has changed, too, since the vote on Trident replacement. Blair and Bush are little more than a ghastly memory, and the White House is now in the hands of a Democrat president who has articulated a clear vision of a world without nuclear weapons. British governments are always reluctant to contradict Washington's views, and Gordon Brown has signalled support for Obama's agenda. All of a sudden, the 2007 decision to replace Trident doesn't seem to have been such a cute move.
Probably because of these two factors, opinion polls are now consistently showing a majority among the public against replacing Trident. Labour is out of step with voters on this issue, and is unlikely to want to highlight this fact.
Now for the Conservatives. The Tories have always prided themselves as being 'strong on defence' and since the Thatcher days have been closely associated with support for nuclear weapons. However, this doesn't play too well with David Cameron's attempts to soften the party's image to appeal to the middle ground.
The Conservatives have been less than keen to commit themselves to a clear position on Trident replacement. Faced with the scale of the economic train crash that a new Conservative government would have to deal with, Cameron has equivocated on whether he would press ahead with replacing Trident or whether he would delay the programme to save money. The Conservative front bench seem divided on this issue, with shadow chancellor George Osborne keen not to make any commitments on spending whilst defence spokesperson Liam Fox is telling everyone who will listen that the Conservatives are committed to a new Trident.
The Conservatives, then, are in a cleft stick. If they say yes to Trident replacement they will be accused of having a less-than-credible economic policy, but if they decide to put the brakes on the programme then they can expect to face questions from their core vote. Either way, Labour will gleefully exploit the contradictions and divisions in Conservative policy.
How about the Liberal Democrats? Before the 2005 election Liberal Democrat policy on nuclear weapons was to warhead numbers by half, extend the operational life of Trident, and delay a final decision on replacing the four Trident submarines with three new submarines until 2014.
The problem with this position is that it is neither one thing nor the other. To most voters it looks like the classic Liberal fudge of choosing a position in the middle rather than taking a principled stand either for or against Trident replacement.
Recognising this, the Liberal Democrats are looking at their position again. Nick Clegg has said that the party would not support 'like-for-like' replacement of Trident, and last week Sir Menzies Campbell issued a well-argued paper considering options short of replacing Trident. The paper basically says that all options to replacing Trident should be considered in a defence review after the election. But although this represents sound logic, Sir Menzies' paper hasn't yet been adopted as party policy, and the Liberal Democrats will risk facing accusations from the other parties that they don't actually have any clear policy on nuclear weapons.
That leaves the Scottish Nationalists, Plaid Cymru, and the Green Party. In contrast to the three main parties, all of whom are committed to retaining nuclear weapons, each of these smaller parties has a consistent and honourable record of support for nuclear disarmament, has clearly stated that it would not renew Trident; and wants to raise Trident as an election issue. After the election they may play an important role in the exercise of power if there is a hung Parliament. However, the electoral system is biased against them and the mainstream media will take its cues from the press briefings of the three main party rather than from what it sees as minority parties catering to special interests. The Greens and the Nationalists are therefore likely to have limited influence on the pre-election debate.
So who will be putting Trident on the election agenda? It will have to be us. No big surprises here, really, because political change has always pushed up from the grass roots rather than been led from above. The disarmament campaign groups are ready to weigh in with us – Greenpeace has prepared an excellent website where you can email the candidates in your constituency to ask for their views, and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament has put together a first class election pack (I'm sure you can find some pro-nuclear campaign materials, too, somewhere on the web if you think Trident is a great idea). There's plenty we can do: tell politicians that new nuclear weapons are a vote loser; ask them for their views when they visit to ask for our vote and at public meetings; write to the local press about the huge price we will pay for new nuclear weapons, and blog it around the internet.
Richard Nixon once said that “Politics would be a helluva good business if it weren't for the goddamned people”. It's time for the goddamned people to kick this issue right up the election agenda.