Daniel Finkelstein comments:
I missed the Liberal Democrat leadership debate on Question Time last night, as, I am sure, did you. But a good friend and acute political observer called me this morning and told me I should make good this omission.
Daniel is of course right: I missed the Liberal Democrat leadership debate on Question Time last night. I haven't made good the omission either. But as Daniel says later in the post that "[Nick Clegg's] position on Trident (almost the only substantive thing he said) is incoherent", I have asked a friend who has watched the broadcast what Clegg said. Apparently it was that, whereas Huhne wished to scrap Trident unilaterally, he (Clegg) wished to negotiate it away.
This is indeed an incoherent position, and it has a disturbing precedent. Negotiating away our independent deterrent is the line that Denis Healey argued (the deterrent then being our Polaris fleet) in the 1983 general election, in order to soften the plainly unilateralist anti-nuclear message held by Michael Foot and advanced in Labour's programme. It makes no sense. Negotiation presupposes that the bargaining chip is retained if the deal is not satisfactory; announcing that you'll get rid of it anyway undermines the point of the negotiation. (In fairness to Healey, who had an impossible task as Labour's Deputy Leader in trying to argue for a disgraceful manifesto that he didn't agree with, he acknowledged as much during that campaign. The response from party activists was predictably and nonsensically furious.)
Scrapping Polaris in negotiations with the Soviet Union was in any event a disreputable policy, because it would have meant the abandonment of our minimum deterrent as against some marginal reduction on the Soviet side. Negotiating away a replacement for Trident prompts the question of whom we negotiate with and for what end. It is inconceivable that any current nuclear-armed state would follow suit. Israel (which as matter of policy does not confirm or deny a nuclear capability) has independent reasons for a policy of deterrence. Pakistan will not abandon nuclear weapons while India does not. India will not while China does not. An aspirant nuclear-armed state, notably Iran or North Korea, will not do so either. North Korea left the NPT regime sooner than abide by the treaty's requirements. Iran has simply lied and dissembled. The proper policy with regard to Trident is not to give it up unilaterally and not to give it up in negotiations, but to keep it. It's already a minimum deterrent.
Had Tony Blair's wish for Liberal Democrat participation in his government come to fruition in 1997, I should have trusted the then Lib Dem leader, Paddy Ashdown, in the post of Defence Secretary (which reportedly is what Blair had in mind). Times change.