General elections are supposed to be about choice, but this will be decidedly absent as far as the issues of Trident and nuclear disarmament are concerned. Opinion polls continue to show a majority opposed to Trident modernisation, but both Labour and the Conservatives insist that the replacement submarine programme will go ahead despite the £20 billion cost. The Liberal Democrats also maintain a characteristic ambivalence that allows them to criticise the expenditure on Trident while still supporting modernisation, albeit through a cheaper alternative. So much for choice. The new Labour government's position is both hypocritical and dishonest. While attempting to convince public opinion that it takes the issue of nuclear disarmament seriously in the run-up to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference in May, it has in fact accelerated the timetable for Trident in such a way as to make cancellation increasingly difficult after the election.
The deception can be traced back to the white paper on the future of Britain's nuclear weapons published in 2006. This was supposedly an objective exercise to analyse the range of options for future nuclear weapons, but it was always intended to have one outcome - to gain parliamentary support for a follow-on nuclear submarine programme. By reducing the operational life of the existing fleet from 30 years to 25 years and extending the development and production schedule for the new fleet from 14 to 17 years, the Ministry of Defence ensured that design work had to start in 2007, when it could have easily waited until 2012 or later. So when the government claims to have delayed decisions on the "initial gate" - when firm contractual commitments are made by the MoD for items such as the steel for the submarine hulls - in order to demonstrate a commitment to the NPT, it should be remembered that no expenditure needed to have been made at all as yet, and that initial concept and design costs for the submarine and reactor have already reached over £300 million.
Yet the scandal may be even greater. For the past 10 years the Barrow shipyard that will build Trident has been working on the Astute-class nuclear submarine programme, itself a multibillion-pound project. Originally, the plans included up to eight submarines but only four have been or are being built. Although there is a commitment to build another three, no firm production contracts have been agreed because of the overall MoD budgetary crisis, estimated now at a £21bn shortfall on equipment. This year over 300 workers have been laid off at the BAE Systems yard in Barrow because of the production slowdown. The MoD may have already taken the decision not to go ahead with the next four Astute submarines and to use the long-lead items, including the steel work for submarine hulls, as the basis for the Trident programme. In this way it can satisfy various objectives - save several billion pounds on Astute, avoid any major cancellation costs and contain expenditure on Trident as the pressure to find a cheaper alternative increases after the election. If so, the government is knowingly involved in a serious deception of both the British public and the international community.
Large sections of the Trident submarines are, in effect, already being produced and multibillion-pound contracts are in the pipeline. When the need for nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation has never been greater, this is a truly appalling example to set the rest of the world. The real solution would be to cancel Trident altogether as Britain's contribution to international nuclear disarmament and to use the £20bn savings as part of a national arms conversion policy. Barrow could then be the hub for a major renewable energy programme in offshore wind and wave power using the abundant sources in the Irish Sea and the northern Atlantic. International studies clearly show that far more jobs could be generated in these new industries than could ever be maintained by nuclear weapons production. But as things stand, whichever party forms the next government, it will continue with Trident because it represents the last desperate attempt by our political and military elites to maintain the illusion of world-power status when, in reality, Britain is nothing more than a subservient ally to the United States in its imperial strategy to control energy resources. If the general election serves any purpose it should be to expose the moral and political bankruptcy of Britain and the other major nuclear weapon powers who are using the NPT as a smokescreen for the modernisation of their nuclear forces.
A new international framework for peace and disarmament is needed based on a comprehensive nuclear disarmament treaty that sets a timetable for the elimination of all nuclear weapons. And not at some indeterminate time in the future, but by 2020 at the latest.