You can’t slip a Rizla between Labour and the Tories on nuclear weapons

As the three party leaders slug it out on prime-time television, another pre-election debate has shown just how out of touch with reality the main parties are when it comes to defence and nuclear weapons.

Just before the first of the three televised debates between Gordon Brown, David Cameron, and Nick Clegg was broadcast I went along to a debate where figures from each of the main parties  were discussing defence issues.

In the red corner for Labour was Bob Ainsworth, who unexpectedly found himself at the helm at the Ministry of Defence following John Hutton's sudden resignation as Defence Secretary.  In the blue corner representing the Conservatives was Shadow Defence Secretary Dr Liam Fox, with  Paul Keetch, a former defence front-bencher, providing a strong voice for the Liberal Democrats.

With the defence equipment budget currently overstretched by £35 billion and British armed forces deeply entrenched in the war in Afghanistan, all three of the speakers spoke of difficult choices to be made after the election.  They were much cagier about how they might make these choices.

One of the big spending burdens during the life of the next Parliament will be the programme to replace Trident nuclear weapons – an issue on which it's impossible to slip a Rizla between Labour and the Tories.  Paul Keetch's call for the role and costs of Trident to be probed in a post-election defence review was ridiculed by both Bob Ainsworth and Liam Fox.  Now, most people would consider it hard to undertake any meaningful defence review without including the biggest single item in the defence equipment budget – an item which has a dramatic impact on the UK's foreign policy – so it's worth considering why the two larger parties are so implacably opposed to scrutiny of the nuclear weapons programme. 

According to Ainsworth and Fox, there is no need for any review of Trident's role because Parliament debated and voted on the need for Trident replacement back in 2007.  By this standard there will be no need for the next government to consider the state of public finances or prepare a budget until 2013, as the budget was debated only last month in Parliament.

Labour and the Conservatives are ignoring two big changes that have happened since the 2007 vote on Trident replacement.  Firstly, the credit crunch has knocked a £60 billion hole in the economy.  This means that we are a poorer nation – with a mountain of debt to pay off – and it will no longer be possible for us to afford expensive luxuries like nuclear weapons without making painful sacrifices in other areas.

Secondly, Barack Obama's election as US president has created a new opportunity for increasing global security by cutting nuclear arsenals around the world.  Obama has made some modest first steps by agreeing with Russia to make cuts in the number of nuclear weapons deployed by each country, and by publishing a Nuclear Posture Review which defines the role of nuclear weapons in US defence policy more clearly, narrows the circumstances under which they might be used, and pledges not to design any new nuclear weapons.

However, if Obama's arms control agenda is to make further progress he will need the support of his allies, including Britain.  Positive moves towards disarmament by Britain could play an important role in showing that, as well as the USA, other nuclear-weapon states are willing to live up to their commitment to disarmament – and also  demonstrate to conservatives in the USA that America's European allies strongly support Obama's arms control programme.  What better way is there of considering all the options and possibilities for reducing the role of Britain's nuclear weapons than through a comprehensive and carefully thought out Strategic Defence Review?

It's easy to dismiss the Labour and Conservative position by saying that they are just trying to avoid examination of a flawed and premature decision.  However, there is more to it than this, and a clue to the bigger picture was given when another questioner asked the politicians whether the UK should continue to maintain a global military role.  The unhesitating answer from each of the studio guests was yes, with no acknowledgment of the costs that this entails, or indeed that the aspirations of the British public may have changed since the decline of the British Empire.  For the British political elite, nuclear weapons are a symbol of military power and prestige that is an important part of our national heritage and culture.  To give them up would be unthinkable.

The final question of the evening's debate spoke volumes.  A guest from a services charity asked the panel whether each party would honour a recent promise by the government to continue paying full pensions to service widows who remarried.  Each of the three answers was hedged with qualifications – of course we'd like to do this, but in the current economic climate we can't make any promises.

The inescapable conclusion is that, regardless of cost, politicians are happy to spend money on symbols of power and prestige that they want.  When it comes to things that the public want, it's a different story.

Online election resources:

Greenpeace and CND have prepared election lobbying webpages that allow you to contact election candidates to question them on their views about Trident replacement.

Election debates on defence between speakers from each of the three main parties have been hosted by Chatham House and British Forces News and can be watched on Youtube.

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