This week Defence Secretary Philip Hammond stated that the Trident Alternatives Review would not be made public. This gratuitous lack of transparency just seems bizarre and is a blow to the credibility of the government as a whole and the Liberal Democrats in particular. And it is also a blow to the prospects for a full and open debate about Britain’s real security needs.
The Lib Dems have been justifiably under fire following successive policy concessions made to the Tories as part of their bid to be in government. Yet on the question of Trident and its replacement, they have fought their corner – thanks primarily to the principles of the party grass roots. At the Lib Dem Conference in 2010, defiant party activists, outraged at the omission of Trident from the then ongoing Strategic Defence and Security Review, tabled an emergency resolution. This won the ballot and resulted in a fiery hour on the floor with successive speakers arguing against the replacement of Britain’s nuclear weapon system. Some argued against like-for-like replacement (which remains party policy) while others argued against Britain retaining a nuclear weapons system at all.
It was in this context that Nick Harvey’s Trident Alternatives Review, announced by Liam Fox in May, was lauded as a success for the junior partner in the coalition. Harvey, the Minister for the Armed Forces, was to hold the Tories’ insatiable appetite for Trident replacement to account and to stimulate real debate with credible, evidence-based alternatives.
Just two months ago, at this year’s Lib Dem conference, Nick Harvey told a fringe meeting that he was “absolutely convinced” that the possibility of developing dual-use nuclear submarines was a “game-changer” for government plans. Even Ed Miliband told Labour Party conference that the government had “done the right thing by commissioning a study looking at whether there are alternatives to the renewal of Trident.”
Now, in response to a question from Jeremy Corbyn MP, Philip Hammond has laid bare the significance of the review for the Tories: “There are… no plans to publish either the report or the information it draws upon.”
This speaks volumes about the Conservatives’ openness to reasoned and transparent consultation over Trident replacement: it is virtually non-existent. Maybe that’s not surprising, but the really interesting issue is why. In my opinion it shows they’re scared of the debate. And that really isn’t surprising. The majority of the population wants to see Trident scrapped; spending on Trident is a disaster for the public sector, including conventional defence; senior military figures describe it as useless; and the government itself has downgraded state on state nuclear attack to a tier two security threat. When the decision on replacing Trident is due in 2016 and a general election will take place before that date, it is absolutely clear what the Tory strategy is: stifle the debate. That much at least is transparent.