UK's Nuclear Deterrent

Part of Terrorist Attack: Nice – in the House of Commons at 8:23 pm on 18th July 2016.

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Photo of Tom Brake Tom Brake Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs), Liberal Democrat Chief Whip, Liberal Democrat Shadow Leader of the House of Commons 8:23 pm, 18th July 2016

This debate is welcome, but I think that many Members will realise that it is not entirely necessary. The Government have initiated a debate the main purpose of which is to create, or highlight, discord in the Labour party. Frankly, however, the Labour party does not need any encouragement from the Government—it is doing a very good job of that itself.

More seriously, the four main threats to the UK identified in the strategic defence and security review were terrorism, the resurgence of state-based threats, the impact of technology and the erosion of the rules-based international order. Trident replacement, which will use 6% of our defence budget, will partially address one of those threats, namely the state-based threat from Russia.

As we have heard this evening, if we go ahead and build four submarines, they will cost us more than £31 billion. Five years ago, the figure was £21 billion. Given that the Scottish National party does not want the system, the cost is irrelevant to its Members, but those of us who want some sort of system, including the Liberal Democrats, are entitled to hear from the Government what the actual cost will be. We have heard figures that range from £179 billion to £200 billion-plus. We are also entitled to some clarity on whether the Government have finally tied down the uncertain issue of who will actually manage the system.

Our position is that we believe that we should retain a nuclear capability. We believe that the threats are such that the United Kingdom needs to have a nuclear deterrent, but we do not believe in a like-for-like replacement, which is why we will vote against the Government today. The party’s position has been debated at great length over the years. It was agreed in 2013, but it is still being debated, including at this very moment.

We seek to take a step down the nuclear ladder, but believe that giving up nuclear weapons in a unilateralist way—simply saying, “We no longer wish to retain nuclear weapons”—would not give us any leverage in non-proliferation discussions. Keeping a seat at the negotiating table is important, and having a smaller nuclear capability would ensure that we build submarines and retain the skills that, as we have heard, are so important for the country’s nuclear capability.

While a move away from continuous at-sea deterrence would strike some as leaving us more vulnerable, it would still mean that we had a nuclear capability and would keep many options open in a way that unilateralism would not. Indeed, it would make a contribution to our non-proliferation commitments. I asked the Prime Minister to explain how like-for-like replacement would comply with article VI, but I am afraid that I received no answer.

It is not 1980. Although we face threats, we do not face the existential threats that we faced then. It is a different world, and there is a way that we can begin to climb down another rung of the nuclear ladder and provide others with an incentive to do so as well. We have the opportunity to do that, and I hope that we will take it now.