Chatham House held a conference today (on the record) on Britain's nuclear weapons debate, and specifically the options when Trident comes to the end of its natural life at the end of the next decade. The politicians speaking were the former minister Clare Short, the Tory defence spokesman Julian Lewis, and the Liberal Democrat defence spokesman Lord Garden.
I spoke, alongside Paul Rogers, Professor of Peace Studies at Bradford University, on the strategic rationale of maintaining Britain's independent nuclear deterrent (he thought there wasn't one and I thought there was). This is a summary of what I said.
1. There is a widespread view that the rationale for maintaining Britain's nuclear deterrent is weak or obscure, while the political dynamic is strong. Gordon Brown's recent comments about Trident (which were strongly condemned by Clare Short at the conference) reflect an aversion to Labour's being thought soft on defence, rather than any strong strategic case.
2. I don't agree with this view. There are certainly domestic political pressures on Labour, reflecting the party's disastrous anti-nuclear stance of the 1980s and its wish not to be associated with those policies again. But I don't regard this as an ignoble motivation. Indeed, as a Labour supporter myself I'm delighted that Gordon Brown has indicated his support for the continuation of Britain's deterrent in the long term. I'm pleased first because Brown's view is consistent with Labour's postwar traditions (in which the anti-nuclear stance of the 1980s is aberrant), and secondly because there is a good strategic case for it.
3. There is indeed a better case for the independent deterrent now than there was during the Cold War. The argument then was that deterrence benefited from a second centre of decision-making within Nato. Conceivably the Soviet leadership might recklessly assume that the US would not risk Chicago to defend London or Paris, and that collective security was a myth. A British independent deterrent would reinforce to the Soviets the risks of nuclear adventurism. This argument was not wrong, but the effect on the deterrent relationship was always marginal.
4. In our 'second nuclear age', the threats are less predictable than the reasonably stable deterrent relationship between Nato and a brutal but risk-averse Soviet leadership. The US and its allies have a common interest with Russia in countering Islamist terrorism, and with China in containing North Korea, but beyond is an anarchic world order in which our intelligence about the military capabilities of malevolent regimes (c.f. the WMD fiasco in Iraq) is limited. In certain circumstances, the possession of an independent nuclear deterrent might provide an irreducible political counterweight persuading such a regime to think again before mounting aggression.
5. Is that enough of a rationale to justify a new generation of British nuclear weapons? One can't say definitively, because defence policy is not a branch of theology: it's about costs and benefits. But I believe it is. Defence policy must anticipate remote contingencies, and the case for Trident is that we can't foresee the nature of threats to us in thirty years' time, just as - even under the reasonably stable Cold War relationship - we did not foresee that Argentina would invade the Falklands in 1982 and Saddam Hussein would annex Kuwait in 1990.
6. The diplomatic benefits of a British renunciation of nuclear weapons are greatly overstated by anti-nuclear campaigners. Such a decision would have scant effect on the plans of Iran and North Korea. Among nuclear weapons states, Israel has independent reasons for not forgoing its capability; Pakistan will agree to disarmament only if India does; India will not if China does not.
7. It is very unlikely that a decision to replace or upgrade Britain's deterrent will cause political ructions remotely comparable to those of the 1980s. For one thing, the decision to deploy Trident then was bound up with a campaign erroneously but potently depicting nuclear deployments (the euromissiles, Cruise and Pershing) as evidence of aggressive designs by the US. There is little reason to believe a campaign against a British bomb specifically will have anything like as much political traction a quarter-century on. For another, the anti-nuclear movement in the UK has undermined its own credibility by taking a position indistinguishable from that of the loud and ludicrous figure of George Galloway. (If you doubt me, look at this CND press release from last February: "The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament today expressed regret at the IAEA’s decision to report Iran to the UN Security Council over its nuclear programme." Clearly this is not a peace campaign in any recognised sense of the term.)