Sitting on defence? Lib Dems & Trident

Written by Total Politics has a free weekly Friday email bulletin. Follow this link to register. on 17 September 2013 in Diary
In a policy motion today, Lib Dem Party Conference confronted an age-old bugbear – nuclear disarmament. The outcome of the vote reveals yet more soul-searching by a party finding it increasingly difficult to differentiate itself

On Sunday, the Lib Dem delegates flouted party history and voted in favour of building more nuclear power stations – energy secretary Ed Davey having told them this is vital to fight climate change – and also voted to support fracking, albeit with an amendment to ensure pollution levels were closely monitored and those local to fracking sites were properly consulted.

Such a break from Lib Dem traditional values was this that The Independent’s sketchwriter Donald Macintyre called the abandonment of its opposition to nuclear power – “a policy it had held to pretty well since before the atom was split” – a “Clause IV moment!”

Even with the caveat of building a new generation of nuclear plants in “limited” circumstances, this was a big policy U-turn for the party, which has long preferred to favour renewable energy resources.

The Lib Dems have been trying to claim any “greenest government ever” credentials the coalition may have or be moving towards as their own, Davey accusing “weak and irresponsible” Tories of hindering efforts to arrive at this goal. Nick Clegg has been careful to point out it’s down to his party to make the government truly green.

Much energy has been generated within the coalition from sparks of disagreement between the more pro-wind energy Lib Dem ministers and Tories favouring the chancellor’s plans to ‘dash for gas’ – ie. frack the pain away.

And we saw some similar soul-searching in the conference hall today on replacement of the Trident nuclear capacity. The ‘Defending the Future – UK Defence in the 21st Century’ policy motion opposed “like-for-like” replacement, and proposed instead a ‘credible contingency posture’ – sounds very Lib Dem already somehow – involving a reduced number of subs and warheads.

The Lib Dems have been traditionally in favour of nuclear disarmament, and opposed full-scale Trident replacement. I remember interviewing senior government rogue Vince Cable’s PPS Tessa Munt and asking what decision, if any, would ever force her to resign her position. Her reply:

“I think I have more power as a government member than I do just throwing my toys out of the pram and resigning. But if I was asked to vote in favour of nuclear weapons, I couldn’t do that.”

The motion was overwhelmingly carried, although it’s clearly a topic that riles the party faithful, with 50 people hankering to speak in the debate, and a rather tense count called on a tabled amendment suggesting instead that the party should  ‘eliminate entirely the UK's nuclear deterrent as soon as practicable’.

This unilateral disarmament argument lost, presumably much to chief secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander’s satisfaction, who led the government's Trident alternatives review and spoke in favour of the motion.

Alexander called this reduced nuclear capacity “a further step down that ladder of disarmament”, suggested the US would be keen on such an outcome, considering Obama’s apparent enthusiasm for a world without nuclear armament.

“As a party, let’s not sit in a position of purity where we can’t make a difference,” he added, to defend not scrapping the nuclear deterrent altogether.

Specifically, they voted for:

An end to continuous-at-sea-deterrence and instead adopt a realistic, credible ‘Contingency Posture’

Construction and maintenance of fewer Successor submarines, and a reduction in crewing levels accordingly.

A declaratory policy of going to sea only with unarmed missiles and storing a reduced stockpile of warheads for redeployment within a specified timeframe.

But this compromise made the Lib Dems appear slightly continuous-at-sea themselves. A “classic Lib Dem fudge” is what the Mirror’s Kevin Maguire called it on the Daily Politics, and one pro-Trident Labour MP tells me that the Lib Dems’ proposed halfway solution is almost worse than “being against Trident altogether – at least that would give their argument logical sense”.

This is a stark reminder that the party’s traditional attitude towards the UK’s nuclear deterrent distinguished them from both the Conservatives and Labour, labelled “dinosaur parties” for their “Cold War” attitude to the prospect of nuclear disarmament by chair of the policy working group Dr Julie Smith, who moved the motion today.

Is today’s vote a further example then that the party has let go of its “soul”, as Nick Clegg referred to the essence of Lib Dem philosophy yesterday? Or is it a demonstration of a party of government willing to put forward workable solutions to its own ideological dilemmas? Either way, it adds another comfortable win to the party leadership’s tally this conference.

Tags: Lib Dem Conference 2013

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