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It mostly covers my work as UNISON Scotland's Head of Policy and Public Affairs although views are my own. For full coverage of UNISON Scotland's policy and campaigns please visit our web site. You can also follow me on Twitter. I hope you find this blog interesting and I would welcome your comments.

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Trident Commission fails Best Value test

The idea that there is, 'more than a negligible chance that the possession of nuclear weapons might play a decisive future role in the defence of the United Kingdom' is justification for spending £billions on the Trident replacement is very weak. No other major public spending decision would be made on this basis.

The Trident Commission has published its report and argues that the UK should retain and deploy a nuclear arsenal for reasons of national security and its responsibilities to Nato. It's overall recommendation is of course no surprise, as it was set up by the British American Security Information Council and it's members have previously expressed their support for nuclear weapons. What is a surprise, is the tenuous justification for replacing Trident.

The three main threats identified in the report are, even by their own analysis, somewhat speculative and how Trident would assist in countering these threat is even less clear. Supporting the NATO alliance is also a weak argument, given recent experience shows that we could make a more effective contribution with stronger conventional forces. As the Commission Chair Des Browne himself has previously written, ‘It has become clearer, for example, that a set of long-term threats has emerged, to which deterrence, nuclear or otherwise, is not applicable: not only climate change, which can be addressed only through coordinated international action, but also cyber-attacks and nuclear terrorism.’

I personally, unlike most CND members, don't start this debate from a position of principled opposition to nuclear weapons. Yes, it's a terrible weapon system, but so are many others and unless you are a pacifist, which I am not, you have to accept that many weapons systems fail on that test.

My test would be, is it an effective weapon system that can be justified on a Best Value test? When public spending is being slashed, defence cannot be exempt from scrutiny. In addition, for every Trident Commission expert, there are many former and existing senior members of the armed forces who argue that Trident is the wrong system and poor value for money. This is particular so when we have sent young men and women into combat zones with inadequate weapons and protection.

It is noticeable that the case for Trident is often predicated on the 'seat at the top diplomatic table' argument. In fact the Commission's membership has a strong diplomatic weighting. That's a very expensive seat and it has been argued that Trident should be funded by the Foreign Office, as it has no useful defence function.

As we are in Scotland weeks before the referendum, this report has a special relevance in the independence debate. My own view is that the section on nuclear weapons is one of the better parts of the White Paper, not least because there is less assertion and more deliverable action. Of course, for those who object to nuclear weapons in principle, shifting them a few miles down the road is of limited comfort. I would argue that Faslane could be relocated in rUK, but relocating the weapons handling facility at Coulport is much more challenging. Credible experts say it is not possible and therefore ejecting nuclear weapons from Scotland would have a knock on effect for the rUK.

There is a jobs argument, although those in favour of Trident have a bad habit of quoting the thousands working in the complex, rather than the few hundred working on Trident. The STUC report is the credible read on this issue. The Scottish Government argues that these will be absorbed into the new naval base. However, Scotland's main naval base ought to be nearest the main threat - that points to an East coast base, not Faslane.

The bottom line for me is that the justification for the replacement of Trident in this report fails the best value test. The main security threats to Scotland and the UK would not be countered by Trident and the huge cost comes at the expense of conventional defence and other vital public services. It needs something, 'more than a negligible chance' that nuclear weapons 'might' play a role, to justify this level of spending.


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