Two years ago, when Parliament voted to start the process of replacing Trident, the majority of the population opposed it. Even then, before the credit crunch kicked in, the cost of Trident replacement was a major factor in shaping public opinion. The news that the total cost of a new system – when including life-time running costs – was likely to top £76 billion was a killer fact for many. Those faced with government spending cuts and the closure of local services were already counting the opportunity cost of a new generation of British weapons of mass destruction.
Since then it has become clear – thanks to a Public Accounts Committee investigation – that even the government’s cost estimates at the time of the vote were only ‘ball park figures’. Cost over-runs are almost certain. In any case, the continuing costs of the existing system for the next twenty odd years should be added to the tally too. In sum, we are talking in excess of £100 billion to fund Britain’s nuclear habit.
Ever larger numbers of people are coming to the conclusion that this is not a price worth paying. And they are coming from an ever-wider political spectrum. Hard on the heels of former Labour minister Stephen Byers questioning the justifiability of such spending, leading Conservatives have now also shown that they are open to rethinking Trident and its replacement. A major debate is now reportedly under way in the shadow cabinet.
Following David Davis’s statement that when it comes to public spending, it is time for the Tories to look at their own ‘sacred cows’, David Cameron refused to rule out the possibility of a shift in Tory policy on nuclear weapons. All well and good, and any rethinking is to be welcomed. But any notion of abandoning Trident and opting for a different type of nuclear weapons system is a complete non-starter.
The reality is that cost is not the only reason to oppose the replacement of Trident. The key question has to be, does it actually add to our security and defence? Increasingly the view is no, across the social and political spectrum. Retired senior military figures have said that Trident is militarily useless and should be scrapped. According to Kofi Annan, when Secretary General of the UN, while powerful countries say they need nuclear weapons for their security, other countries will come to the same conclusion. In other words, our continued insistence that the possession of nuclear weapons makes us safe, will encourage other states to proliferate. They put us at ever greater risk.
The case for nuclear disarmament is compelling and urgent. Ever increasing numbers are recognizing that, nationally and internationally. Now is the time for action. Gordon Brown should not be holding back.