During the campaign, one gentleman on his doorstep told me he was going to vote for us but had now changed his mind and will vote Tory. The reason, he said, is that ‘they will keep our defences strong’ because of Trident. David Cameron, in his ‘offer’ speech, also referred to strong defences and Trident. The very first question at the Churches Together debate in Sheerness in May was directed at me on this topic and keeping our defences strong.
So clearly there is public concern on the issue of Trident and our defences and how the perception is that we must have Trident so we can be strong.
I am reminded of the scene in Yes Prime Minister when Sir Humphrey patiently explains to Bernard that the point of Britain’s defence policy is not to defend Britain – but instead to make the British believe Britain is defended. With Trident in our hands, we can all walk about, reassured that we are safe.
Yet it seems to me that a defence strategy which bases itself almost exclusively on nuclear weapons is not strong – in fact, it is very weak indeed – and this is something we should all be concerned about.
Trident is back in the news because of who should pay for it. George Osborne and the Treasury argue that the Ministry of Defence should foot the £20bn bill because it is a military weapon. Liam Fox and Defence, on the other hand, argue that as nuclear weapons are ‘political’, they should be paid for by the Treasury. (It was President Truman who established the principle that civilian politicians, not the military, should control the use of nuclear weapons).
The bill is twenty billion pounds and this may rise to one hundred billion and beyond in the years ahead. At a time of massive deficit, when our military are crying out for modern equipment and vehicles, when our troops are moonlighting to save up to buy battle armour, when our forces are using equipment designed for Northern Ireland in the mountains and heat of Afghanistan, does it make sense to spend this money on a system we don’t need and can’t use?
We have seen British troops fight in the Falklands, in Kuwait, the former Yugoslavia, Iraq, and presently Afghanistan. Nuclear weapons were useless for these conflicts. In fact, the Falklands War was the first time a non-nuclear power has attacked a nuclear power, knowing full well there was no risk of ‘nuking’ Buenos Aries.
Equally there have been terrorist activities such as the IRA and Al Qaeda for which modern counter-terrorism resources must be provided.
It is concerning to read that our defences will now be cut even more to pay for Trident severely further reducing our capability to fight a modern conventional war. Would we be able to liberate the Falklands if Argentina walked in tomorrow?
We must have an overhaul of our defence strategy and ask ourselves where do the threats to our security come from and how can we meet them?
To keep our defences strong we need highly trained and efficient conventional military forces, with the necessary modern equipment and facilities to do what they do so well. We need our forces to have the flexibility and mobility to fight wherever we send them – whether it is Europe, the desert or against terrorists at home.
That is what we need – strong defences to protect our country and our people. Not a weak defence based on Trident.