Liberal Democrats can be rightly proud of their record on challenging like-for-like Trident replacement and keeping Britain’s nuclear weapons near the top of the political agenda – certainly during the last general election campaign. But now it looks as though their coalition partners are moving to stifle the gains they have made. Not only has the Defence Secretary announced the suppression of the Lib Dem-led Trident Alternatives Review. He is also making a mockery of the delayed Trident replacement decision – scheduled for 2016 – by committing to spend £6 billion before that decision date. This is hardly fair play by any yardstick of coalition cooperation.
So it’s not surprising that Tessa Munt MP, well-known for her principled stance against nuclear weapons, had the following to say about this shabby and unaccountable behaviour: ‘I am becoming increasingly concerned about the lack of openness at the MoD regarding the review on alternatives to Trident. This must not be delayed or hidden or re-branded whilst more and more contracts are signed which make Trident unstoppable after 2015.’
No doubt Tessa’s concern will be echoed by many Liberal Democrat members and supporters,particularly from amongst those who have fought hard in recent times to ensure that their leadership holds the line on Trident – even if it’s not the full anti-nuclear position that many of them would prefer. After all, 2010 Party Conference delegates fought hard to secure the emergency debate which demanded due scrutiny, cost-saving measures and a rigorous review of alternatives to like-for-like replacement of Trident and secured this commitment by top levels of the party.
It is impossible to know – until an insider publishes their memoirs presumably – the exact extent to which Lib Dem ministerial intervention contributed to the Trident replacement delay. But certainly former Party President Baroness Scott thought that it was a pivotal factor. As she said in October 2010, after the delay was announced,
“So Trident will not be renewed this parliament – not on a Liberal Democrat watch. Let us be clear, this is a significant victory for Liberal Democrat campaigners, and a fantastic example of what our Ministers can and do achieve in government.”
Not long after, in May of this year, then Defence Secretary Liam Fox announced the Trident Alternatives Review – under the auspices of Lib Dem Defence Minister Nick Harvey and reporting to the Prime Minister and his deputy – to “review the costs, feasibility and credibility of alternative systems and postures”. This would enable the Lib Dems to put forward credible alternatives to like-for-like Trident replacement. Whilst many of us have argued that a ‘no-nuclear’ alternative should also be considered, nevertheless it was another Trident victory for the Lib Dems.
But the trouble with victories is that those on the losing side will then work to redress the balance.
It’s taken a few months, but the Tory backlash has started. Defence Secretary Philip Hammond has stated, in an answer to a Parliamentary Question from Jeremy Corbyn MP, that “[t]here are…no plans to publish either the report or the information it draws upon.” Read that again. Now ask yourself how a review designed to open up debate and scrutiny of plans to replace our nuclear weapons system cannot be made public.
Following this, Defence Minister Peter Luff has itemised £2bn of spending at the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) in Aldermaston where our nuclear warheads are made – also prior to any decision on upgrading them. This is in addition to the MoD’s projected £4bn which will be spent on replacement submarines before the ‘Main Gate’ decision point in 2016.
Both these developments are an insult, to parliamentarians as a whole, whose part in the decision-making process is being denied, and to Lib Dems in particular, who have made advances only to see them unilaterally – presumably – reversed. Tessa Munt MP is absolutely right to highlight the ‘lack of openness at the MoD’ and the fact that come 2016, the replacement of Trident could be presented to Parliament as a fait accompli. This cannot be countenanced and doubtless this view is widely shared amongst Lib Dems. Their fighting spirit, I am sure, will not allow the Tories to roll over them on this question.
This post was first published on LibDem Voice.