Finally the mounting costs and strategic irrelevance of Trident is making front page news. This week we’ve seen both Treasury Secretary Danny Alexander and former Defence Secretary Des Browne put the cat among the nuclear pigeons. Alexander’s Guardian interview comments confirm the Liberal Democrat position that a like-for-like replacement of the Trident fleet is ‘unnecessary – and unnecessarily expensive.’ That’s good to know, given concern that it was being dropped after Nick Harvey was removed from the MoD.
More interesting is the contribution by Des (now Lord) Browne to this week’s House of Lords debate where he comes out against maintaining ‘continuous at-sea deterrence’ (CASD) – in other words against having a nuclear-armed submarine out there 24/7. As was observed in the press, it is rare for a previous office holder to criticise the plans of the incumbent. Even more noteworthy is the fact that Browne was the office holder who championed the Trident replacement plan through the Commons in 2007 at the behest of erstwhile prime minister Tony Blair.
In the debate, Browne spoke compellingly against British double standards over nuclear weapons: ‘Are we telling the countries of the rest of the world that we cannot feel secure without nuclear weapons on continuous at-sea deployment while at the same time telling the vast majority of them that they must forgo indefinitely any nuclear option for their own security? Is that really our policy? If so, do we expect the double standard that it implies and indeed contains, to stick in a world of rising powers?’
Although Browne is focusing his argument on CASD, in reality the logic of his point applies to possessing nuclear weapons at all. Many have made just that observation: as Kofi Annan put it, while some say they need nuclear weapons for their own security, others will come to the same conclusion.
If individuals are serious about dealing with the problem of nuclear weapons – and it seems to me that Lord Browne now is – then the conclusion that will have to be reached is that British nuclear disarmament is an inevitable and very necessary part of that process. And one that makes perfect sense in strategic, military and financial terms. As the recent debates on Trident in both houses of parliament demonstrate, there are many open and opening minds from across the political spectrum. But if Des Browne turns fully against Trident he will not be the first former Defence Secretary to do so: former Tory Defence Secretary Michael Portillo has already blazed the trail.