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MPs need to come to a conclusion over Britain's nuclear future


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The UK parliament will vote on the 18th July on whether to renew the British nuclear weapons system Trident. The programme has been in operation since the early 1980s, commissioned under Margaret Thatcher’s government. It was developed as a response to the Cold War threat of Russia and replaced the original Polaris missile system; but the programme has been a sceptical topic in British politics for generations.

The vote on July 18th could be the one and only opportunity for its opponents to stop it from progressing. Long term opponent Jeremy Corbyn could choose to change Labours official stance and oppose the renewal of the programme, which is estimated to cost between £15-20 billion to regenerate; or, under pressure from his backbenchers, he could choose to uphold the party’s current line.

Currently, the only party officially opposed to the programme is the SNP. The Scottish financial secretary said that his party will be “resolute” in their opposition to renewal. The Liberal Democrats are also sceptical of the programme and have called for a “step down the nuclear ladder”.

At a NATO summit in Poland last week the Prime Minster David Cameron said that Trident was “an essential deterrent” for Britain’s enemies and that the programme “remains essential to the overall security of the NATO alliance”.

The programme allows an offshore British Nuclear Submarine to launch a retaliatory strike against an aggressor if mainland Britain is attacked, an idea known as mutually assured destruction. Currently, there are four submarines with nuclear capability in the fleet, with one submarine always based offshore ready to attack if necessary.

So, with the debate looming, I think now would be a good time to look at some of the arguments for and against renewing the Trident missile programme.

Those that argue in favour of renewing the programme argue that nuclear capability is a strong deterrent against rogue states and terrorist groups from attacking the UK at home. The notion is that if a state attacks mainland Britain with a nuclear strike then one of the four British submarines will launch a nuclear missile at the aggressor state; however, we’ve seen that nuclear weapons have not deterred terrorist groups from attacking Britain on the streets of London.

If the programme is scrapped, then Britain and possibly NATO’s military global influence could be diminished, in the eyes of some supporters. In order to remain strong and capable in the eyes of our enemies then we must retain the programme. David Cameron has even called the programme “an insurance policy” against an enemy attack.

Another argument for renewal is the number of jobs that rely on the continuation of the programme. It has been estimated that 15,000 jobs are connected to the Trident industry, and this is something that Corbyn and Labour will have to consider when reviewing their stance in the issue. Regional unemployment has diminished support for Labour in certain areas of the UK and they will want to prevent this from happening again.

On the other side of the argument, those opposed to Trident renewal cite the vast cost of renewing the programme. Government estimates put the cost at between £15-20 billion, but the anti-Trident group Greenpeace has said that it would cost at least £34 billion. These high costs may seem unacceptable at a time when the government is making cuts to vital public services, such as the NHS, education and social care.

Also, from a defence standpoint, the former Cold War threat of Russia no longer exists – well, not in the form that trident was set up to combat. Some critics agree with Nina Tannenwald’s idea of a nuclear taboo, making nuclear weapons essentially useless on the modern battlefield. Also, as noted earlier, nuclear weapons seem to have no place when tackling international terrorism and certainly do not deter terrorists from attacking.

Another issue arises when we remember Britain has signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. If MPs vote to renew Trident then it may send the message to other states that it is okay to develop and maintain a military nuclear programme.

So, as the vote looms closer MPs from all parties will review their opinions on Trident and will most certainly be vocal in their support or opposition of the programme. Members will need to balance the need to deter Britain’s enemies from attacking and the need for global nuclear disarmament and the financial cost of the programme all at a time of increasing austerity.

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