Why Corbyn is right about Britain's nuclear 'deterrent'

Michael Walker
Open Democracy
22 October 2015

Trident is far more a political than a military entity – it does not even command uniform support across the military.

The change in leadership of the Labour Party has brought the issue of Britain’s Trident nuclear weapons system back into the spotlight. Depressingly, however, the election of a man who is anti-Trident has merely thrown into relief the general consensus within the country’s largest parties for its retention. As this essay will show, these advocates of a British nuclear ‘deterrent’ cynically use the issue for the furtherance of domestic political objectives, rather than to meet genuine defensive needs. 

The United Kingdom has four submarines equipped to fire Trident nuclear missiles, which are purchased from the United States of America. Almost incredibly, one of these submarines is always at sea, ostensibly deterring nuclear attack from nebulous and changing enemies of Britain. This is known as ‘Continuous At-Sea Deterrence’. The cost of Trident is very high, accounting for 6% of the annual defence budget, according to the Ministry of Defence. 

The Conservative party is firmly committed to Trident, and envisions its eventual replacement with a similar submarine-based system within the next decade or so. As stated in their 2015 election manifesto, ‘We will retain the Trident continuous at sea nuclear deterrent to provide the ultimate guarantee of our safety and build the new fleet of four Successor Ballistic Missile Submarines’.

Large sections of Labour share these sentiments. Hilary Benn, who speaks for the party on foreign affairs, declared in an interview on the BBC in September that ‘we need to maintain an independent nuclear deterrent’. A succession of Labour heavyweights lined up at the party’s autumn conference to support this point of view.

The emergence of the left-wing and anti-Trident Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader has therefore sent minor shockwaves across the political landscape. Until his election opposition to a British nuclear capability was largely the preserve of the Scottish National Party, which could be ignored by the large parties in London on account of their relative insignificance in terms of parliamentary seats.  

Proponents of Trident point to the necessity of having nuclear weapons in a dangerous world. It is, to employ the phrasing of the Conservative Party, ‘the ultimate guarantee of our safety’. History, however, has shown that Britain’s nuclear missiles have on at least one occasion failed to deter aggression. In 1982, the Argentine military junta led by General Leopoldo Galtieri rashly invaded the disputed Falkland Islands, notwithstanding the fact that a British submarine was somewhere at sea ready to fire off a nuclear warhead, if required.


Trident’s value is therefore political, not strategic. It is employed by the government as a way of showing that they are ‘tough’ on defence, and also serves as a stick with which to pound the opposition for their lily-livered lack of concern for Britain’s security. All left-wing or centre-left parties are susceptible to attacks on their reliability vis-a-vis defence, and Labour is no exception in this regard. Now, with Jeremy Corbyn as leader, top Conservative politicians are falling over themselves to paint him as a threat to Britain’s safety. To take one of many examples, George Osborne wrote in The Times in September that ‘today’s Labour party not only threatens national security, but is a clear threat to our economic security too.’

Read full article at: Open Democracy