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Nuclear elections

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Britain's nuclear deterrent is an ageing resource. The Trident submarines carrying the United Kingdom's nuclear weapons will not last long into the 2020s, and if they are to be replaced a major spending commitment will have to be made in the next couple of years. Given that the total cost is uncertain - estimates range from the Government's £15-20 billion to Greenpeace's £97 billion - the next Government, whatever its political make up, will be faced with a monumental decision.

Until the second televised leaders' debate on foreign affairs, the issue of Britain's nuclear weapons had barely been mentioned in the election campaign. Neither Labour nor the Conservatives dwelt on the subject in their manifestos; both are committed to renewing Britain's nuclear deterrent by replacing the Trident submarines with a new force at some point in the 2020s. But the apparent surge in support for the Liberal Democrats, and widespread predications that their leader Nick Clegg could be the 'kingmaker' in a hung parliament, has disrupted the nuclear consensus.

In the second debate, Clegg reiterated his party's commitment, in the words of their manifesto, to 'rule out the like-for-like replacement of the Trident nuclear weapons system. At a cost of £100 billion over a lifetime it is unaffordable, and Britain's security would be better served by alternatives'. Clegg argued that the money spent on Trident replacement would be better spent on front-line troops and equipment meeting the security concerns of the day, and that nuclear weapons have not 'deterred' those currently menacing Britain, citing the high-profile military figures who wrote to the Times opposing Trident's replacement.

Gordon Brown's rejoinder to Clegg, that he needed to 'get real' over nuclear weapons, echoes previous elections where the nuclear deterrent has become a subject for debate. Then, as now, the issue has arisen when the deterrent is in transition and a new commitment is needed. Once in place, most people appear to be content for Britain's nuclear weapons to silently exist beneath the sea, but the issue of replacement represents a fissure inviting debate. The last two big changes in Britain's nuclear system - the commitment to buy Trident in the early 1980s, and the decision to purchase its predecessor Polaris - were both hotly contested in the subsequent General Elections, spurred on by the waves of popularity enjoyed by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament experienced two in these periods of nuclear flux.

In 1983, the Labour Party entered the General election promising to 'cancel the Trident programme' and remove all nuclear bases from Britain. Unilateral disarmament was a key plank (alongside withdrawal from the EEC and abolition of the House of Lords) of a manifesto memorably described by Gerald Kaufmann as 'the longest suicide note in history'. Labour's stance was ruthlessly attacked by Margaret Thatcher. In the run-up to the 1987 election, Labour entered its second successive election with a 'non-nuclear' defence policy. Thatcher made enormous political capital from their stance, arguing that 'a Labour Britain would be a neutralist Britain. It would be the greatest gain for the Soviet Union in forty years. And they would have got it without firing a shot'. In both elections, Labour's anti-nuclear stance hindered its electability. An overwhelming majority of the British public approved of the British bomb, to the extent that unilateral disarmament has been unthinkable for a major political party ever since.

There are greater similarities between 2010 and the 1964 election, however. Before forming the Government, the Labour Party had committed itself to 're-negotiate' the agreement to buy Polaris, arguing that 'it will not be independent and it will not be British and it will not deter. Its possession will impress neither friend nor foe'. In the election campaign, the issue became heated, with the Conservatives' attacking Labour's plans. The Wilson Government's subsequent confirmation of the original deal (minus one of the five planned submarines) caused controversy within the party and was defended with a misleading claim that the programme was too far advanced to cancel. Furthermore, the Labour Governments of Wilson and Callaghan continually underplayed the development work being undertaken on nuclear weapons after 1974 in order side-step opposition within their own party.

The Liberal Democrat manifesto has promised to rule out a 'like-for-like' replacement for Trident, and promises to divert the money to other projects. Once in power, however, the fear of being the one to leave Britain unarmed in an emergency has ensured many nuclear-sceptics ended up supporting the deterrent. Sharing power, would Clegg be able to resist the arguments in favour of nuclear weapons? They provide security well into the 2050s; no-one can guarantee Britain will not be under threat from a nuclear-armed antagonist in the next forty years. Without them, would Britain's permanent seat on the UN Security Council be endangered? The wording of the manifesto provides the party a degree of space akin to Labour's 1964 commitment to 're-negotiate' the initial Polaris deal, and the give-and take of coalition politics could help them avoid being held to account for the huge hole that replacing Trident would leave in their budget. Given the strength of pro-nuclear feeling on the Labour and Conservative front benches, this 'wriggle room' will probably be needed if Nick Clegg finds himself sitting around the Cabinet table after 6 May.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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