Leaders: Third way on deterrence has no saving graces

Picture: PA
Picture: PA
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FOR decades the debate over whether the UK should have an independent nuclear deterrent has been couched in binary terms. Either we should, or we shouldn’t.

Now, however, a third option has been floated by a government report prepared at the instigation of Liberal Dem­ocrat ministers within the ­governing coalition.

The report proposes reducing the number of Vanguard-class submarines based at Faslane. It suggests this could provide an acceptable level of deterrence, for less money. But what really interests Lib Dem ministers such as Danny Alexander is the idea that this would somehow represent a significant step on the road to disarmament. It would be, he would like us to believe, a step down a disarmament ladder.

This seems a stretch. The nuclear missiles would still be capable of unthinkable devastation but the speed at which that devastation would be unleashed might be diminished. With no guarantee that a boat was at sea at the time of an enemy strike, there would be a delay until one was and then in a position to hit the designated target. Assuming of course it survived the initial strike that necessitates retaliation.

The report reaches some conclusions that will disappoint those ministers who had been tempted to see the Trident programme as a plum opportunity to make savings in a time of ­austerity. It rules out a shift to Astute-class submarines and cruise missiles as actually more expensive than Trident, as well as being less effective. But more disappointingly for those seeking cut-price defence, it rules out much cheaper, land-based and airborne nuclear missile options as impractical.

But the option favoured by the Lib Dems, of reducing the number of submarines, would not produce savings on such a scale that would make this an unmissable opportunity for the government. In fact, in cost terms over the life of the missile system, the savings are almost negligible. And the questions raised about the practicality of the solution both as a deterrent and as a retaliatory strike force are serious ones. Surely if Britain is to change its deterrent then the savings have to be worth any potential damage to national security?

The government paper makes the clear-sighted observation that this is not a discussion about whether anyone currently has the capability or plausible intent to threaten a nuclear attack on this country.

But not even acknowledging the debate over independence and Faslane and the siting of the missiles in an independent Scotland seems a curious omission that seriously damages the credibility of this report. Or would if it had any credibility. The impression left is that the Lib Dems are attempting to persuade a gullible public that this somehow is a skilful compromise that sees ­Britain start towards disarmament but at the same time maintains national security at present levels. It does neither.

Monster victory for good sense

In any list of Scottish icons, Loch Ness and its famous but elusive resident must come pretty high up. Even without the monster mythology, this 23 miles of the Great Glen is an extra­ordinary part of the Scottish landscape, with vistas that come close to being definitive images of the Highlands.

So it is with some satisfaction we note the refusal of permission to build a large wind farm at Drumnadrochit, on the western shore of the loch.

Of course, Scotland needs a mix of power generation that includes a strong renewables sector. The push to make this a reliable and significant part of the country’s energy profile is an increasingly important part of the Scottish economy, often cited as one of the engines for getting us back into healthy growth.

But at the same time it is good to know that the authorities occasionally have the good sense to say “no, this goes too far”. There are some parts of Scotland worth preserving pretty much as they are, for the enjoyment of generations to come and the hundreds of thousands of tourists who come to our shores every year.

The Drumnadrochit decision bodes well for the new planning regime announced earlier this year by the Scottish Government that will codify with greater clarity where wind-farm developments are acceptable, and where there should be an assumption against development.

This new regime will inevitably be tested legally, with strictures about proximity to national parks and villages brought under intense scrutiny from those landowners who see wind farms as a new cash cow. But it is to be hoped, in these battles to come, the same sound, common sense on display yesterday will apply.