By Alex Miller

The election of Jeremy Corbyn as the new Labour leader earlier this year has thrown the debate over the future of the UK’s Trident nuclear weapons system wide open.

His staunch anti-nuclear weapons stance has reinvigorated an already popular debate over whether the UK should renew its nuclear weapons system. Corbyn caused controversy recently by saying he would never use the UK’s nuclear weapons if he were PM and by becoming Vice President of the British Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Not only does this go against the agreed upon policy of the Labour party to renew the Trident nuclear weapons system, which is set to need replacing in 2020, but it entirely defeats the point of the nuclear deterrent. By categorically stating that he would never use nuclear weapons as Prime Minister, the defensive strategy behind Trident, which is to deter nations from attacking the UK because retaliation would be instantaneous, is wholly undermined.

This statement led to Lord West, a Labour Peer, stating that he would quit the Labour Party if Corbyn became PM and scrapped Trident, while the current chief of the defence staff, General Sir Nicholas Houghton, said that he would, “worry,” if Corbyn became leader of the nation.

What’s more, the confusion within the Labour party continues as Corbyn’s own shadow defence minister backed Houghton’s comments and the renewal of Trident nuclear weapons whilst last month the Scottish branch of the Labour party voted to make opposing the renewal of Trident a key policy. The Conservatives however, stand united behind the policy of renewing all of Britain’s nuclear weapons, which are based at the Clyde Naval Base in Scotland and operate through submarines that patrol the Atlantic.

General Sir Nicholas Houghton, the Chief of the Defence Staff of the British Armed Forces. Photo by: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff

The infighting within the Labour party may be interesting but it’s a distraction from the real issue of whether the UK should be funding the renewal of these weapons over the coming years. Have we moved past the era of nuclear warfare with the Cold War over or is Trident still vital towards maintaining the UK’s influence abroad and national security?

The benefits to nuclear weapons are quite simple, they’re supposed to mean we don’t get attacked by volatile or aggressive states because we are one of an elite club of 5 nations (the UK, USA, Russia, China and France) who have the power to hit back instantaneously with devastating effect; this is known as mutually assured destruction. The Trident nuclear weapons owned by the UK are a deterrent to all possible attackers. What’s more they provide around 15,000 jobs up and down the country as they need regular maintenance and protection and if the UK unilaterally gave up its nuclear weapons, our influence on the world’s stage and the special relationship we maintain with the U.S could be diminished. In periods of extreme turbulence, such as the present situation in Syria or with the current rise of Islamic State, nuclear weapons supporters say that as a nation we don’t know what’s around the corner and nuclear weapons, which have been in place since 1969, are necessary for assuring the security of our nation.

Police and protesters at the South Gate of HMNB Clyde, Faslane in 2007. Photo by: Dave Taylor

The case for nuclear disarmament is also strong, with the renewal of Trident set to cost the taxpayer around £20 billion (Corbyn and disarmament groups say this figure would be considerably higher) which could be invested in schools, hospitals and infrastructure. Plus, although the price of scrapping the 4 current nuclear submarines and 48 nuclear warheads would be expensive, savings would be continually made each year after disarmament with the Trident making up 6% of the UK’s annual £34 billion defence budget. Equally, it’s said that terrorist groups which constitute the main threat to the UK currently don’t respond to nuclear deterrents like states did in the Cold War and that the cost of Trident is extortionate when you consider the fact that as they are just a deterrent they will never actually be used. You’re literally getting no bang for your buck.

So what should the UK do then? As it stands I believe we should be aiming towards becoming a nuclear free nation and subsequently promoting a nuclear free world. There should be no place in existence for these abhorrent weapons of mass destruction and the prolonged devastation to surrounding peoples and land that they cause. Plus, the fear of a less globally influential Britain isn’t a real concern, nuclear weapons are not a sure-fire ticket to success and influence. The only nation that believes that is North Korea and we really shouldn’t be following their lead by any means. Germany and Japan are global big hitters and rising nations like Brazil all maintain significant and growing global influence without nuclear weapons.

The Trident system deal was first agreed by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and US President Jimmy Carter in 1980. Photo by: White House Photo Office

The real concern is Britain’s national security and David Cameron isn’t far off the mark when he calls Trident the UK’s “insurance policy”. Many Britons, myself included, would feel exposed living in a highly targetable nation without a nuclear deterrent to bolster our already strong armed forces and with the constantly rising threat of global terror, total disarmament could send out the wrong message to the world.

Therefore, compromise must be cited as the way forward. The Conservatives and Labour are planted firmly at the extreme ends of the debate, but the Liberal Democrats propose a policy of limited renewal. They argue for the reduction of Britain’s nuclear warheads and taking the submarine fleet down to three vessels rather than four. This policy would save around £4 billion. What’s more the option of moving the weapons onto land would remove the staggering cost of building new state of the art submarines freeing up more money for public projects.

The UK becoming a nuclear free state in the future looks unlikely and that is possibly for the best, but we should be aiming to reduce Trident. Cut the bill and spend the money better and then be aiming to pressure for a nuclear weapons free world is, in my opinion, the way forward.