Martyn McLaughlin: Trident debate ends with a whimper

A mushroom cloud reaches high into the sky during atomic testing in Nevada, USA, circa 1940   five years before Hiroshima and Nagasaki were bombed. Picture: Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
A mushroom cloud reaches high into the sky during atomic testing in Nevada, USA, circa 1940  five years before Hiroshima and Nagasaki were bombed. Picture: Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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Trident’s replacement was approved amidst a torrent of wincing truisms from MPs, writes Martyn McLaughlin

It is to be hoped that anyone who harbours a morbid fascination about the extent of the suffering meted out by a nuclear attack will live out their life in a state of wonder. But if the especially curious insist on submitting themselves to pain, they could do worse than a repeat screening of the vapid Commons debate on the £179bn Trident’s Successor programme.

The quantity of wincing truisms and hoary shibboleths scattered throughout the six-hour session would necessitate safeguards; maximum doses of five minutes’ viewing in a sitting, perhaps, or double shots of adrenaline and the waving of a Union Jack cocktail stick whenever the phrase “international standing” is uttered.

READ MORE: Insight: Relentless logic of Trident’s successor unravels

Whatever hardy few make it to the bitter end would, I hope, arrive at the same conclusion as myself. A session designed to dissect one of the largest investment programmes of this, or any government, failed emphatically. With Labour’s benches waging an internecine battle, the debate skirted forlornly around familiar themes of status and morality, impasses unlikely to win over new converts in the space of an evening. Come the end, the absence of any considered scrutiny left me exasperated. How did they learn to stop questioning and love the bomb?

Take the old gambit that Trident is the ultimate insurance policy, for example. The word reared its head some 13 times, a higher hit rate than for “Hiroshima”, “Faslane”, “Whoops Apocalypse”, or “Major Kong”. The concept of indemnity is manna to supporters of Successor. They know fine well there is no way of demonstrating its utility, save for the uneasy stalemate that has endured over the 71 years since Nagasaki.

Prime Minister Theresa May was one of the most vocal advocates of this argument, stressing that the deterrent is “effectively an insurance premium” of 20 pence for every £100 spent by the UK Government over the next 35 years. “Our national security is worth every penny,” she insisted, shortly before her defence minister was unable to clarify the total expenditure.

It is an entirely irrational justification. Were the Government to set aside such astronomical sums to develop and stockpile a vaccine for the entire population, or build a host of new hospitals in anticipation of a potential pandemic, it would be derided as an unreasonably anxious precaution. The sacred cow of defence, however, is immune from such judicious considerations. In what other policy area could such a vast outlay be justified on the basis of unexpected events decades down the line? Then again, having appointed Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary, perhaps Ms May has greater foresight than most of the geopolitical pitfalls that lie ahead.

No insurance policy can avert accidents or disasters, nor can they ever adequately compensate for the loss suffered. It may well be the dubious business of the insurance trade to sell what might happen tomorrow, but it is the duty of government to ensure that tomorrow is better – and safer – than today. Unfortunately, such commitments prize purpose over prescience; it is far easier to ape the salesman’s mantra of stirring fear, uncertainty and doubt.

This analytical vacuum is at the heart of the decision to green light Successor. It is a monstrosity predicated on hypotheses. Even if it is never used, it has already claimed a casualty in the form of logic.

What better example of this than the insistence that the deterrent is a vital driver of the economy? So forcefully did the Tory benches push the jobs agenda, you would be forgiven for mistaking Trident as the successor to the Youth Training Scheme and not a thermonuclear atrocity capable of turning a child into a mound of ash small enough to be swept through the charred front door of a floating duck house.

The absurdity was seized upon by the SNP’s Patricia Gibson who, in one of the most penetrating contributions, said arguing Trident was important because of jobs “is like saying that we should not find a cure for cancer for fear that cancer surgeons may be unemployed”.

It did not discourage talk of the issue, little of it of any substance. The word “jobs” was mentioned 63 times, including by Ms May, who made clear thousands of highly-skilled jobs are sustained by Trident. It was an assertion intended to shut down debate in an area that demands investigation; even the most cursory economic assessment reveals Trident’s record in job creation is desultory.

Michael Burke, a former senior Citibank economist, has pointed out that to employ the estimated 11,520 workers directly dependent on Trident at an average annual salary of £34,400 would cost less than £400m a year. The estimated budget for Successor’s lifetime would provide continuous employment for over half a millennium. As things stand, the economic returns simply do not add up.

The job losses that would inevitably follow any decision to relinquish the deterrent understandably weigh heavy on the minds of politicians, but the eye-watering sums that would be saved as a result would provide for an investment portfolio so significant it could realign the national economy.

It will fall to a future parliament to consider such matters. The stagnated discourse surrounding Britain’s nuclear deterrent suggests little will change any time soon, at least while Scotland remains in the union. Trident’s defenders offered up only an emblematic case for the status quo, but with opponents so remiss and inattentive, it was all they needed.