Labour’s £205 Billion Nuclear Problem

By: Felix Langley
Classics Undergraduate Student

On the 26th of September the Shadow Defence Secretary, Clive Lewis, announced that Labour would henceforth follow a policy of multilateral disarmament and that he would not use his position to try to turn Labour to unilateralism1. Two days later Jeremy Corbyn expressed his disagreement with Labour’s previous decision to back Trident renewal, but refused to challenge Lewis. Now Lewis has been moved to the role of Shadow Business Secretary and replaced with a Trident sceptic, Nia Griffith. It took until the 14th of October for it to be clear, per a statement from Griffith, that she had dropped her opposition to Trident and that renewal would be party policy.

Until recently Labour did not actually have a policy on Trident, as it was subject to the findings of the party’s defence review, which with Griffith’s appointment has now been headed by four different people. However, this has not stopped pro-Trident MPs such as John Woodcock from insisting that the last decision made on Trident at a party conference under Miliband’s leadership was still valid, even going as far as to attack Corbyn to his face in the Commons over his former unilateralism. When the Commons voted on Trident renewal in July, 140 out of Labour’s 230 MPs backed it. However, Labour members are far less keen on Trident: according to a poll by YouGov, 53 percent of members oppose it, compared to a meagre 25 percent who support it. To complicate matters further, Scottish Labour has a policy against Trident renewal, backed by 70% of members and union affiliates who voted on it.

In the face of such a divide, what to do? Rather than simply trying to put the political hot potato to one side to appease serial rebels such as Woodcock, Labour needs to face the fact that Trident is not fit for the 21st century and is a white elephant of absurd proportions. The predicted cost has rapidly climbed from £34 billion in January to a staggering £205 billion now, which would be paid over the course of the next 30 years, and is likely to climb further with the continuing deprecation in value of the Pound. For the same cost, we could pay off the annual deficit of the NHS for nearly another 84 years. It is being proposed that we spend this much money by many of the same people who have insisted that the £12.9 billion the UK pays into the EU budget annually for economic and cultural benefits that are actually tangible is too great a price to pay, as well as those who have hacked away at the NHS’ funding since 2010 under the pretence that we need to tighten our belts.

“What the bloody hell is it for?”

So, in the words of former Chief of Staff Field Marshal Lord Carver, “What the bloody hell is it for?” Far from providing any such benefits, Trident simply places extremely dangerous nuclear bombs in a country that has voted against them. If a Trident missile were to detonate in Faslane, where they are based when not ‘on tour’ – either because of an accident or sabotage – everyone within a nearly 9km radius would be killed almost instantly by the blast. Here in St Andrews we would be safe from the blast itself, but we’d still be vulnerable to dangerously high levels of radiation. Given that there have been 13 recorded incidents of close shaves with accidental nuclear missile launches since 1963 (and potentially more that have slipped under the radar), it seems to me that Trident is more of a security risk than a security guarantor.

But that’s just the risk we take for the reward, right? Well, no, not really. Trident doesn’t have much reward to speak of. So far Trident has failed in its primary objective as a deterrent to Russian aggression, to which Crimea and Aleppo stand as testament. If the real and pressing threats posed by Russia are non-nuclear in nature and we quite reasonably are not prepared to bomb Moscow over them, nuclear weaponry does not provide a solution.

Trident is not fit for the demands of modern warfare. In an age when the emphasis of war is shifting from conflicts against other nation states to conflicts against loosely-organised terrorist groups, and when cyber warfare is becoming increasingly prevalent, Trident simply does not provide the defence Britain needs. Over the course of the past year France has had to learn the bitter lesson that nuclear arms expenditure does not keep its citizens safe and is no substitute for anti-terrorism measures.

Trident is not fit for the demands of modern warfare.

Given that British security services have warned that the UK is “highly likely” to suffer a terrorist attack in the same vein as those in France, it would be reassuring if British politicians would recognise the need to reprioritise. It is of course too much to expect any sense on the matter from Michael Fallon and the Tories, who relish using Trident as a political football and for padding out defence spending to reach the two percent of GDP target set by NATO without having to put any thought into what might actually defend us. Subsequently, the task of forming a coherent defence policy falls to Labour, the only other feasible leading party of government. The SNP’s opposition to Trident is encouraging, but not enough to overturn Westminster government policy.

Jeremy Corbyn is well aware of all of this. What he now needs to be prepared to do is to push for disarmament to be concrete party policy. Having just been re-elected with an enlarged mandate, he is not going to get a better opportunity. Regardless of whether he does or doesn’t, the narrative of unelectability followed by conservative media and hostile MPs will not shift, as evidenced by the reactions to his most recent reshuffle. Instead, Corbyn needs to press on and show – as he has already done – that he can rewrite the narrative spun by the Tories when he is prepared to challenge it. The cancellation of tax credit and PIP cuts, the abandonment of Osborne’s attempts at fiscal discipline and the shifting of the economic narrative away from austerity to investment were not achieved by Corbyn following in the footsteps of Blair, Brown and Miliband. The electoral and political advantages of accepting Trident simply are not there. Miliband did not win by emulating Cameron, and Corbyn will not win by emulating May.


1 Unilateral nuclear disarmament is the process of a single country dismantling their nuclear weapons without consulting other countries or requiring others to do so as well. On the other hand, multilateral disarmament is the process in which countries (often rivals but also allies) agree to disarm some or all of their weapons. Cross-checks ensure that all parties to the disarmament treaty stick to their word. In this article, they might be described as “Unilateralism” or “Multilateralism”.

Featured image by UK Ministry of Defence.

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