NIS researcher Steve Hendry assesses how the new Conservative – Liberal Democrat government is dealing with the issue of Trident replacement.
New Defence Secretary Dr Liam Fox has announced that the anticipated Strategic Defence Review will begin immediately. Initial indications suggest that Trident replacement could be part of that review.
Given the resistance to any further scrutiny of the 2007 Trident decision displayed by new PM David Cameron and the Conservatives during the election campaign, inclusion in the review would be a concession to the Liberal Democrats who distanced themselves from their new partners and Labour in their manifesto, by promising ‘no like for like replacement of Trident’. The Liberal Democrats will now have the opportunity to put forward alternative proposals on how to take Britain’s nuclear arsenal forward.
In part the inclusion of Trident replacement in the review is a vindication of those who have challenged the former government’s estimations on the costs involved. The inclusion of Trident in the defence review will provide an opportunity to further scrutinise and publicise the financial costs of the UK's continued possession of nuclear weapons.
However, the depth of this scrutiny and how open Liam Fox and William Hague, as new Foreign Secretary, will be to Lib Dem demands on nuclear weapons is unclear. Moreover, big steps towards disarmament appear to be off the short-term agenda with both parties confirming their commitment to replacing Trident in some form.
Despite this consensus, the return of Trident replacement to the political agenda should be seen as an opportunity to push politicians further on the need for a new generation of UK nuclear weapons in light of increasing challenges to their value as a deterrent amongst leading figures in the military and the moves by US President Obama to work towards a world without nuclear weapons.
Primed by the attention given to the cost of nuclear weapons during the election campaign and given the huge cuts the new government will need to introduce to tackle the UK's fiscal deficit, the return of Trident as a political issue may provide disarmament campaigners with the opportunity to engage with a more receptive public on issues of both cost and need.