The Trident whistle-blower and the SNP allow us to reconsider our nuclear deterrent

A first step might be the transfer of the submarine base from Scotland

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Like it or loathe it, the Conservative majority in the new Parliament could bring to an end some of the uncertainties that went with coalition government. One of the most delicate concerned the future of the UK’s nuclear deterrent. Now, unless David Cameron has a sudden change of mind before the Queen’s Speech next week, Trident should be renewed, allowing Britain to remain – albeit, some say, in name only – an independent nuclear power.

Yesterday, however, out of left field in more senses than one, a small Scottish voice made itself heard. This was not the SNP leader, Nicola Sturgeon, insisting that her party’s policy and her deep personal conviction were that Trident had no place in an independent Scotland. Nor was it one of the SNP contingent in the new Parliament announcing that they would vote to a man and woman against its renewal. No, it was someone rather closer to the action.

Able Seaman William McNeilly, a Royal Navy submariner, went public on the internet with his view that Trident was “a disaster waiting to happen”. He subsequently admitted in a radio interview that his views had an ideological aspect: despite earning his bread and butter from the Navy, he believed that nuclear weapons were no longer the answer to national security and had no place in any modern defence. But the precise criticisms he made about Trident were not ideological. They were entirely practical and based on his experience of being on patrol as a technician on HMS Victorious, one of the four submarines that comprise the Trident deterrent, and this is why they deserve to be taken seriously.

McNeilly alleged serious security and safety violations, starting with lax security at the Faslane base. He described alarms being toned down so they did not bother people so much, told of fires starting in missile compartments, and claimed there were failures in assessing whether missiles could be launched safely. 

His dossier runs to 18 pages. And, like so many whistleblowers before him, he says that he tried repeatedly to make his complaints through the chain of command, but nothing was ever done.

Ergo, he decided to go public, but selectively, he says, so as not to prejudice security. The Royal Navy, and the Ministry of Defence, will doubtless want to be the judge of that. The Navy at once defended its “stringent” procedures, saying that “submarines do not go to sea unless they are completely safe to do so”.

But it slightly weakened its case – in my book, at least – by following the time-honoured practice of belittling its accuser. McNeilly’s report, the spokesman said, “contains a number of subjective and unsubstantiated personal views, made by a very junior sailor”. Well, you know, sometimes the most junior, most recent arrival, retains a clarity that those entrenched in the system have lost.

So let’s hope the Navy honours its undertaking to consider the complaints in detail. But can we hope, too, that scrutiny of the Trident system does not stop there? A first step might be to announce the eventual transfer of the submarine base from Scotland. It would cost money (though less than the scaremongers claim), and it would please the SNP, but it would also test Sturgeon’s commitment to her ideals, as well as challenging her to find replacement funds and jobs for redundant Scots.

But Cameron could and should go further. While in coalition, he appeared to surprise some of the top brass by taking what was an unusually critical approach (for a Conservative) to the armed services. It was not just that budgets were pared and troop numbers cut, but also long-established ways of doing things. Procurement was made more rigorous, and an effort was made to address the UK’s top-heavy structures – we have far more senior officers in proportion to rank and file troops than, say the US or France.

The Conservative victory is bound to raise hopes among the top brass that the pressure is now off – this, and the threats they have persistently talked up from the likes of Russia and Islamic State. It may be expecting too much for a Conservative government to look again at the rationale for the UK’s nuclear deterrent. After all, it is an article of faith that Britain needs to be a nuclear power (while encouraging others not to be), if it is to stay in the “top club”. 

But with the US questioning the UK’s usefulness as an ally if it does not up its defence spending, and the appetite of the British public (if not yet its elite) for altruistic armed intervention at rock bottom, could we not usefully explore other options? A joint nuclear deterrent with France would be my preferred direction for British defence, with a shared EU Security Council seat as part of wider reforms to the UN. Dream on, you will say. But McNeilly and the Scots between them have at least broached the question – almost for the first time since the heyday of CND.

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