By David Seddon
As the election campaign gets under way, it is clear that all parties will need to address the looming budget deficit. Indeed, it may well turn out that how they approach it will determine the results of the election.
Labour promises to reduce the budget deficit by half in the lifetime of the next Parliament, but starting in 2011 to prevent falling back into recession and protecting certain areas; the Conservatives have indicated they would start earlier but cut harder, although they also have 'ring-fenced' key areas for protection and are now talking of foregoing Labour's proposed increase in natural insurance contributions.
The Lib-Dems are 'hard-nosed' about the need for major cuts and ridicule the idea that some areas can be protected, arguing this would mean even deeper, possibly ruinous cuts in 'unprotected' areas. Nick Clegg has referred to the need for 'savage' cuts and Vince Cable has spelled out in more detail than either Darling or Osborne precisely how he would go about it.
Unlike Labour and the Tories, the Lib-Dems have addressed seriously the possibility of major cuts in so-called 'defence' projects. In June 2009, Clegg announced that he "would not renew Britain's Trident nuclear deterrent system with an equivalent modernised system". Hitherto, the Lib Dems had called for a 50% cut in nuclear warheads, but left open the possibility they would support like-for-like replacement for Trident in 2024. Clegg told the Guardian he was making the move because of the rapidly deteriorating public finances and because the case for such a nuclear deterrent in the post-cold war world was "a complete fiction".
He was said at the time to be the first – and only – leading politician to argue openly against a full-scale Trident replacement. But several leading members of the Green Party (including Caroline Lucas, now leader of the Greens, and Sian Berry, former Green Party Principal Speaker) were already on record as opposed to "the danger, expense and folly of renewing Trident". Only the Greens currently propose scrapping Trident.
The cost of replacing the Trident nuclear missile system and bringing into operation two large aircraft carriers could total £130bn. Trident alone could cost as much as £100 billion if replaced on a 'like-for-like' basis, while the cost of the carriers, including the US-made F35 aircraft designed to fly from them, could be as much as £30 billion. Even with three Vanguard submarines instead of four, as has been mooted, the savings would be small (maybe £3 billion).
On 15 September 2009, Vince Cable was reported as suggesting that the Lib-Dems would scrap the Eurofighter upgrade - saving £5 billion - and Trident - and the A400M transport plane. But in fact the Lib Dems have only opposed a full-scale Trident replacement. Clegg has actually considered equipping Astute submarines with nuclear cruise missiles, such as the Tomahawk; he also has suggested Britain, like Japan, could retain a stockpile of safeguarded fissile material that could be turned into a nuclear missile within six to 24 months. So, even the Lib Dems are not prepared to scrap Trident entirely or to abandon the UK's so-called 'independent' nuclear capability.
In fact, 'our' Trident missiles are leased from the US and their warheads based on an American design (the W-76). They are manufactured at the Atomic Weapons Establishment in Berkshire – a copy of a nuclear plant at Los Alamos and two-thirds owned by American companies Lockheed Martin and Jacobs Engineering. The firing system is designed and built in the US, as is the missile guidance system; the missiles are aimed with the help of US satellites. The subs themselves are designed and built in the Britain, but use American components and reactor technology. Finally, Britain could never use Trident without US approval. So much for independence!
This week, in Prague, Presidents Obama and Medvedev ratified a nuclear arms reduction agreement, replacing the expired Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, effectively reducing their deployed nuclear warheads by 30 per cent to 1,550. If the USA and Russia can do this, surely Britain can now scrap Trident, thereby doing away with the myth of an 'independent' nuclear deterrent, contributing to global multi-lateral nuclear disarmament, and making great savings at the same time?