On Trident, we’re still fighting the Cold War

Britain’s nuclear deterrent does not require 24-hour patrols

Danny Alexander
Sunday 21 July 2013 02:47 BST
HMS Victorious is part of an outdated system
HMS Victorious is part of an outdated system (Crown Copyright)

The UK does not need a hair-trigger nuclear weapons system to keep it safe. To suggest otherwise is Cold War thinking at its most outdated – and last week it was a shame to see both the Conservative and Labour parties in denial.

This debate is too important to be dictated by the political ghosts of Margaret Thatcher and Neil Kinnock. We need to move on from old Cold War assumptions and consider the facts.

To help open the debate, on Tuesday the Government published the Trident Alternatives Review. It is a detailed and forensic analysis, the most thorough for decades. It clearly shows there are credible and viable alternatives to the UK’s current approach to nuclear deterrence.

For the first time in a generation, the British people can see for themselves that 24-hour nuclear patrols against no adversary in particular are unnecessary.

The review demonstrates that there is a ladder of nuclear capability and readiness and that there exist a number of options for taking steps down its rungs without getting off altogether.

I believe we should cease round-the-clock patrols when they are not justified by a threat, but retain the capability to restart them if we need to in the future. That is not a “part-time” approach: our conventional forces are constantly available, but held at lower readiness according to the threats we face.

Of course, coming down the ladder depends on the judgements we make about future threats, as well as about our legal and international obligations; it means accepting a different calculation of risk from that which existed during the Cold War.

If continuous at-sea deterrence is an insurance policy, we’re paying too high a premium.

I believe we can and should go much further in de-alerting our nuclear deterrent.

Just last month in Berlin, President Obama announced a major reduction in the US nuclear arsenal and called for movement beyond “Cold War nuclear postures”. I want the UK to meet this call.

As the US President has said, a world free of nuclear weapons may be a long way away off but that should not stop us taking responsible steps towards it.

The easy option, of course, is to do nothing, as both the Conservatives and Labour parties suggested they will do. That is the easy approach, not the right approach. The right approach is to meet President Obama’s call while maintaining our national security and our ultimate insurance policy against future threats.

It is my hope that in the next Parliament the UK’s response will be to seriously consider the end of continuous nuclear deterrence. The division on this issue is now clear: Labour and the Tories are stuck in the past, the Liberal Democrats are looking to the future.

As Nick Harvey noted, the dinosaurs may have sounded loud in the House of Commons but the British people are more open-minded. We should not allow backward-looking, Cold War assumptions to stop us doing the right thing.

Danny Alexander is Chief Secretary to the Treasury

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in