There's a very interesting piece about the replacement of the Trident strategic nuclear deterrent and the Vanguard Class submarines that carry it in the FT today.
Headlined "Trident upgrade to be used against Tories
" it looks at the most important decision any PM will ever have to make: whether to ensure the UK keeps its ability to defend itself against strategic threats from any other global power. If the wrong decision is taken and the deterrent downgraded, it puts every successive
British PM in a position of greater risk, vulnerability and national weakness, at a time when we cannot possibly predict the strategic threats Britain might face many decades in the future when the replacement deterrent will still be in service.
Bizarrely the Tories have decided to allow a Lib Dem Minister, Nick Harvey, to run the official review on this most vital of questions. The Lib Dems are unfortunately, for a party that includes the remnants of the SDP who quit Labour partly over its 1980s unilateral disarmament policy, flakes on this issue. They believe in a dangerous fantasy that the deterrent could somehow be provided on the cheap through Cruise missiles deployed on the relatively small Astute Class submarines, or even from land based silos or aircraft.
All these options actually make the world a more dangerous, not safer place. There is an incentive for a hostile power to launch a preemptive strike to destroy aircraft on the ground or missile silos, whereas a Trident-style system is virtually immune from preemptive sites as it sits at the bottom of an unknown ocean in a submarine - thus doing what it says on the tin "deterring" attacks because any attackers knows they are inviting their own destruction. The Astute and Cruise option is also dangerous because it does not have the range of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles like Trident which can hit anywhere in the world - you have to put the subs in a vulnerable place nearer the shore of the target country, not in deep mid ocean, and even then range of the missile is an issue against some major continental powers with "strategic depth" i.e. important targets a very long way from the sea. Nor is it clear that Astute could provide the CASD - Continuous At Sea Deterrent all year-round that Trident's Vanguard subs do. As soon as you have gaps and delays when your deterrent is not out in the ocean you again invite preemptive strikes.
All this may sound a bit sci fi and far-fetched but we have to forecast threats up to 50 years in the future because of how long Trident's replacement will take to develop and then to be in service. Think about how radically the world has changed in the 50 years since 1960. I don't want a British PM and the British people in 2060 vulnerable to threats and nuclear blackmail by another power because a hung Parliament in 2010 let the Lib Dems get their hands on this decision.
Cost should also not be a consideration. Whatever our straightened circumstances austerity isn't an excuse for making our grandchildren more vulnerable in a changing and potentially more dangerous world. The headline costs quoted always sound huge but in any case they are spread over the whole life of the new deterrent - per annum the deterrent is a cheap way of achieving strategic defence.
As well as the danger here for our country there is a danger here for Labour. This is not a theoretical decision for us as it was in the 1980s when it contributed to our un-electability and we were so far from power additional Labour MPs losing their seats were the main victims of our love-in with CND. This time in a hung parliament with the government likely to be split on this there will be siren voices urging Ed Miliband to side with the Lib Dems on this.
If we do, we will have lost any claim to seriously aspire to power. The electorate will not trust any party or leader that makes the wrong call on such a serious issue of national security. Nor should they. This may not be a big or resonant issue right now but if we show weakness or play politics with it the Tories will dust off the "Labour's policy on arms" attack ads from the 1987 election (showing a soldier surrendering) and destroy Ed's credibility with patriotic voters in exactly the same way they did Neil Kinnock's (see image below). There are far more of these voters, particularly in marginal seats, than there are people who might find Lib Dem backsliding on the deterrent appealing.
This is as big a test for Ed Miliband as it is for David Cameron. I hope they both get it right.
My advice to Ed would be to look for inspiration to the great 1945 Labour Government and Clem Attlee's decision to create a UK independent deterrent, as well as Ernie Bevin's 1946 remark to Cabinet Committee "We've got to have this thing over here whatever it costs .. We've got to have the bloody Union Jack on top of it" rather than Michael Foot's stance on this issue.
As Hugh Gaitskell said on this issue: "There are some of us who will fight, and fight, and fight again, to save the party we love. We will fight, and fight, and fight again, to bring back sanity and honesty and dignity, so that our party – with its great past – may retain its glory and its greatness." To become PM, and for our Party to be saved and attain power again, Ed needs to put himself on the same side that Hugh was on on this issue.