In an article on the Guardian website on 5th November Philippe Sands states: “…the Liberal Democrat spring conference in Harrogate rejected a ballot effort calling for the abandonment of Trident. Instead, the conference narrowly voted in favour of a resolution calling for a delay on the Trident decision.” Oddly enough, in that debate in March (as well as in literature distributed beforehand), the Lib Dem leadership strenuously insisted that the amendment to the main motion (the “ballot effort”) did not call for the abandonment of Trident but for its retention until it rusted to bits. I thought at the time that this was not what the amendment, fairly and properly construed, meant, but the accusation that the amendment was “flawed” and “badly drafted” seems by repetition to have become the current wisdom. Who is right: Sands or the leadership?
Sands goes on, in his article, to claim that the “minimum deterrent” that leadership contender Chris Huhne favours as one of two alternative options after the 2010 talks under the 1968 Treaty on non-proliferation of nuclear weapons (“NPT”) – the other option being no renewed system of nuclear weapons if there is a genuine improvement in the international environment - “raises serious problems with the NPT”. Huhne said that he did not intend to replace Trident, but if it were imperative to do so other delivery options would be considered with a smaller nuclear warhead than the UK’s current warheads. According to Sands, Huhne “appears to have adopted a policy in support of enhanced targeting that would bring the United Kingdom into conflict with its obligations under the NPT”.
The main problem I have with Sands’ criticism is that the NPT is not and has never been concerned with delivery systems (missiles and so forth): it is concerned with what they deliver – the nuclear warheads (the bombs). Hence the UK would not be a breach of the NPT if it acquired new delivery systems. Whether their targeting was better or worse than that of the present missiles would not be within the scope of the NPT.
Sands also writes: “Developing a new range of smaller nuclear weapons…would enhance the UK's nuclear deterrent, rather than diminish it” by tending to increase the prospects for the use of UK nuclear weapons, by establishing a tactical capability where none previously existed. He argues that this would be contrary to the “commitment to pursue a diminishing role for nuclear weapons in security policies, as agreed by the parties to the NPT in 2000.” Thus according to him a proposal – such as Huhne’s – to replace the UK's existing numerous and enormously powerful nuclear warheads with a minimum number of less powerful ones would be a breach of the NPT. Leaving aside what the “commitment” in 2000 was and what effect it has, the conclusion seems startling, so is there a flaw in the argument? I think so. Sands slips in a tacit assumption that the Huhne proposal involved a shift in security policy towards greater willingness to use such weapons. But that is plainly not the case: certainly the Huhne manifesto says nothing of the sort.