On March 31st, Nicola repeated her precondition that the scrapping of Trident was a red line issue for any deal with Labour. This was in response to Miliband ruling out the scrapping of Trident as part of any SNP deal to Jeremy Paxman. Impasse? Or is it a form of wordplay about the difference between scrapping and ‘not renewing’?
It’s a tough issue for Labour to negotiate around – and that probably partly explains their non-participation in the debate brought by the Greens, SNP and Plaid Cymru at Westminster on the issue (as well as not wanting to draw favourable attention to the other parties, and make them look credible, in the run-up to a general election). But polls do show that there would be benefits for Miliband in being The Man Who Killed Trident.
Wings Over Scotland’s poll taken over 9th-14th January on UK continuing to have nuclear weapons had a yes/no split of 51/27 across the UK, and 44/36 in Scotland. When YouGov conducted a UK poll between the 25th and 26th January on Trident, the replace/scrap split was 56/25 across the UK and 42/48 in Scotland. Another poll showed 79% of the public did not support renewal, with a further 31.6% opposed to it staying on the Clyde. So support for renewing Trident is just over a majority across the UK, but a lot closer to tied in Scotland.
But could such a decision help Labour’s general support? 47% of 2010/2011 Labour voters are opposed to the renewal of Trident, with only 32% supporting it…which produces a 60:40 split if one ignores the 21% of Don’t Knows in the Survation poll. The greater opposition to Trident in Scotland is also clear in voting intentions: 33% say they would be more likely to vote for Labour if they scrapped Trident, with only 18% less likely. In contrast, across the UK, only 18% said they would be more likely to vote for Labour if they scrapped Trident, with 20% less likely.
But there is another dimension to this problem for Miliband – and that is his own party. Not only did a survey of 500 parliamentary candidates across the political spectrum show that 81% would vote against replacing Trident, but a CND survey for the New Statesman of Labour’s general election candidates showed that 75% of THEM would vote to scrap it. The implication is that a vote to scrap it could be won. And that opposition is becoming more vocal, as they see that the SNP might present them with the opportunity to get their Party’s policy to reflect the wishes of its membership, rather than the Conservative Party’s: Diane Abbott MP queried: “How exactly does a submarine system designed for the Cold War era combat new threats from international terrorism?” Paul Flynn MP – so recently critical of the smearing memo against Nicola Sturgeon – asked “How does Trident deter? Falklands? Iraq? Afghanistan?”
Yet on the 29th March it was confirmed in the Labour Party’s election manifesto that they would renew it, leading to accusations that not only were Labour out of touch with the public, their voters, their membership, but also their own parliamentary candidates.
So, does that put the issue beyond question? That’s a tough one – as much as one can point to the concept of ‘compromises in government’, now that Ed has put it in the manifesto, it would be hard to row back on.
The ridiculous cost could help him do that, though. The cost of renewal/replacement of Trident is 3 billion a year, rising to 4 billion by the 2020s, with a projected final bill of over 100 billion. The closely-related 634 million ‘Pegasus’ project to store enriched uranium for warheads at the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) in Berkshire has been halted after serious management and design problems, with possible implications for Trident’s renewal. Project Mensa, designed to improve warhead assembly facilities will cost at least £734 million. Both projects are delayed and over budget. The AWE will take £10bn over the next ten years and – if Trident is renewed on a 4 submarine (rather than the LibDems 2) basis, the cost over 30-40 years will be £100 billion. Any concomitant increase in projected costs, or supposed ‘revelation’ about how bad the Treasury’s books were once Labour took over (and I’m sure that Labour would love to claim that!!), might give Ed some wiggle-room – especially in a speech over ‘tough choices’ over cuts.
There are safety considerations. In 2013, the AWE was fined £200,000 for breaching safety laws following an explosion at Aldermaston. For two consecutive years, the Office of Nuclear Regulation (ONR) has placed AWE under ‘special measures’ due to radiological hazards and below par safety performance.The internal watchdog Defence Nuclear Safety Regulator has also warned of a shortage of suitably qualified staff at the naval base on the Clyde.
There are also practical considerations: the UK’s fleet seems rather disproportionately high – sure, in the 1960s, the US had 41 nuclear submarines to deploy, but with the end of the mighty Soviet Union, and the impact of the global economic crisis, the fleet is now down to 14, all near the end of their operational lives. The costs of replacement design and construction (which the US desperately want the UK to share the costs of) mean that those 14 are likely to shrink to only 10. Suddenly, the UK’s 6 (capable of firing 14 Trident D5 missiles each) nuclear submarines (which all have to be repaired and maintained in the States – perhaps there is an excuse for the paucity of suitably qualified staff at Faslane, after all…), at more than half the size of the US fleet, seems somewhat disproportionate, and akin to a mighty armada. Although its true that the US might well plan to rearm over the next few years with the rise of China, which has had 4 Jin class nuclear submarines operational (with 12 JL-2 ballistic missiles, each capable of 8000 km journeys to the US) since January last year, and 12 supposedly planned in total, there still may need to be a political swing in government before the funding can be secured following the economic crisis for the US to embark on such a programme.
In the meantime, until they do, there is an opportunity. The UK is broke. There will probably never be a better argument for the nuclear fleet to be scrapped.
However, that does not mean that it is likely to happen. It seems that this one chance of a generation is likely to be squandered, with the prevaricators’ favoured myth of multilateral disarmament trotted out to spuriously attempt to justify it. The only thing standing against that happening is Nicola Sturgeon, and the plausible deniability that she would give Miliband for doing ‘the right thing’. Although the two leaders’ espoused positions might seem to kill a SNP-Labour deal stone dead, Nicola insisting on such a red line issue that is so close to the heart’s of Ed’s party membership and parliamentary candidates does massively increase internal Labour Party pressure. And with such commitment within the Labour Party itself to getting rid of the weapons, despite the policy of the Labour executive being at odds with this, it would also give Ed the opportunity of the (somewhat) face-saving excuse of ‘well, I did not want to do it, but a wee wumman made me do it and ran away’…
Perhaps Cameron senses this, which is why Michael Fallon made his rather strange speech on Thursday April 9th, notifying the public in advance that Trident renewal was going to be in the Conservative manifesto for the General Election (surprise surprise) from deep in the cosy heart of Central London – and definitely nowhere near Faslane. Apparently – fide Fallon – the Clyde base has become the largest single employer in Scotland….really? A Freedom of Information request to the Ministry of Defence for precisely how many jobs at the Clyde base (which includes the Faslane submarine port and the Coulport nuclear weapons store) rely directly on the Trident strategic weapons system, came back with the figure of precisely 520 jobs (primarily for engineering and science specialists): the Ministry of Defence directly employs 159 personnel at the base, with the private contractors Babcock Marine employing 254, and Lockheed Martin UK Strategic Systems 107. This is in sharp contrast to figures touted during the Referendum campaign by Fallon’s predecessor Philip Hammond of 6,500 jobs (3,500 uniformed Royal Navy personnel, 1700 contractors and 1,600 other civilian employees), which would only go if the entire base was closed (, which seems highly unlikely), rather than Trident alone being scrapped. The Scottish Trades Union Congress (with Scottish CND) produced an study that demonstrated that less than 1,800 jobs would be lost, after 2022, if Trident was scrapped. In contrast, the redirection of merely one of the many billions of pounds from Trident into infrastructure in the west of Scotland would generate around 15,000 jobs. Far from being “the largest employment site in Scotland”, the money spent on Trident remaining at that base is a huge obstruction to employment in the area.
Briefly, Ed Miliband has three reasons to agree to scrapping Trident in a deal with the SNP: firstly, it’s what his Party wants (and might even help restart their fortunes in Scotland); secondly, he would (largely unjustly) acquire a legacy as ‘the statesman that killed Trident’; thirdly, its the only way he is going to get into 10 Downing Street in his political career, as Labour will ‘can’ him if Cameron gets back in, and ensure he is never leader again. But how can he wiggle enough to make it happen, and keep his hands semi-clean with that manifesto pledge now hanging over him?
A free vote in the Commons? We can hope.
“Senior military figures warn that the 100 billion white elephant of Trident replacement does nothing to keep us safe and is resulting in thousands of jobs in the armed forces being slashed. How a blkind commitment to squandering our overstretched national resources on a Cold War weapon can be touted as being ‘strong on defence’ is beyond me.” (Kate Hudson, General Secretary, CND)