Opinion: It is time Trident received the debate it deserves, says Matt Gaw

One of the Royal Navy's Trident-class nuclear submarines

One of the Royal Navy's Trident-class nuclear submarines - Credit: PA

Despite the fact this is the final election before a vote is taken on the future of Trident in 2016, the mainstream political discourse is about nothing more than cheap name-calling and point-scoring.

It’s enough to make you want to fall on a missile.

Despite the fact that a decision to renew the Trident nuclear system will cost taxpayers £100billion and could feasibly result in the end of life as we know it, political debate on the issue by the main parties so far has been vapid, childish and distinctly one dimensional.

Last week, with words that echoed Margaret Thatcher’s attacks on Labour policy in the 1980s, defence secretary Michael Fallon claimed Ed Miliband would “barter away our nuclear deterrent” in a bid to cosy up to the SNP and fall in line with what he described as a “childlike worldview”.

He went further. Speaking to a national newspaper, he added “Ed Miliband stabbed his own brother in the back to become Labour leader. Now he is willing to stab the United Kingdom in the back to become prime minister.”

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The personal attack, probably dreamt up in some Thick of It-style tieless meeting, was deemed by many as a step too far. A bristling Ed Miliband, no doubt fresh from his own coffee-powered session with a team of writers, certainly thought so.

Amid accusations of “gutter politics”, Miliband described Fallon as “a decent man” who he felt had “demeaned himself and demeaned his office”.

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The media gamely played along, with each fresh strike and counter strike, they described at length who had said what and why, under the breaking news banner of ‘Trident row’. Except of course, this thoroughly pointless spat wasn’t really about the nuclear defence system at all. After all, the main political parties are in broad agreement about Trident.

Speaking on Thursday, Miliband said as much. “Our position is: continuous at-sea deterrence, like the Conservative party, renewing Trident, like the Conservative party, multi-lateral disarmament, like the Conservative party.”

So, despite the fact this is the final election before a vote is taken on the future of Trident in 2016, the mainstream political discourse is about nothing more than cheap name-calling and point-scoring.

Surely we deserve more?

The case for replacing the outdated Trident is looking weaker by the day and serious questions need to be asked about what is potentially a waste of £100bn. Even those in the military, who one might reasonably assume would support such investment, have questioned the role of nuclear subs in keeping the people of the UK safe.

And for good reason, because in reality the four submarines, each of which is capable of carrying up to 40 nuclear warheads (eight times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima), are of no real use. The act of deploying a Trident warhead would be illegal in pretty much every conceivable circumstance. Due to the unavoidable number of civilian casualties caused by such a genocidal and barbaric system, the International Court of Justice ruled in 1996 that the threat or use of nuclear weapons would be contrary to the rules of international law.

Furthermore, The Dr Strangelove threat of nuclear conflict has thankfully receded since the Cold War decades, to be replaced by new and different threats.

The National Security Strategy identifies terrorism and cyber attacks as a posing a far greater challenge to society – both problems that can’t really be solved by billion pound submarines or the depleted troops that would result from such a lavish and pointless investment.

So why persist with the Trident? First, questioning a weapon that is often used as an uncritical synonym for national security can be unpopular or even seen as un-British – especially given the resurgence of certain political parties whose world view pre-dates the end of the Cold War.

But also it’s more about hubris than strategic nous. Tony Blair, one of the most prominent advocates of Trident (surely warning enough?), suggested that having nuclear weapons was more about status than anything else.

In a proper debate on Trident we should also look at what else that £100bn could buy.

Well, university tuition fees for the next 30 years for a start (which means our children won’t be saddled with debts of up to £27k). Or maybe West Suffolk Hospital or Ipswich Hospital could benefit from the 150,000 nurses that could be hired every year for 30 years?

The same sites could see their A&E services fully-funded for 40 years.

It feels incredible that something that could cost us so dear is not receiving the attention or respect it deserves.

One could say it is certain politicians, not some anonymous foreign threat, that need a rocket up the backside.

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