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Ed Miliband's Nuclear Question

17/03/2013 10:49 GMT | Updated 16/05/2013 10:12 BST

"I don't think anybody sensible really believes that Britain will still be a nuclear power after 2016. In Tony Blair's book he made clear that it's not even an independent nuclear deterrent, and we don't need it anyway." These were the words of a bright young Labour MP as they spoke to a group of supporters in a quiet north London pub.

Unfortunately their timing couldn't have been worse. Only a few days earlier Lord West, the former Chief of the Naval Staff and Security Minister for Gordon Brown, told the Independent that Labour is preparing to back the Conservatives on trident renewal.

Obviously they can't both be right.

The last time the party seriously debated the issue was in March 2007, when 88 MPs rebelled and the policy was passed with the support of the Tories. Since then the Coalition has put the decision on hold while they review it again. The report will be published prior to the next election, with a final vote taking place in 2016. There are a number of questions to be asked before MPs decide whether or not to commit £100 billion to a new generation of submarines, but which questions will be prioritised? My concern is that the decision may prove to be a political one rather than an ethical one.

The perceived political benefit is clear; renewal would maintain Britain's prestigious position as a nuclear power and would allow the Labour Party to dodge any accusations of being soft on defence. However, times have changed, and so have the country's priorities. Simply put, trident isn't actually anywhere near as popular as many assume. One of the main reasons is that the recession has caused people to question the need for it. A recent poll found that 63% would be happy to scrap trident in order to pay down the deficit and another found only 22% support a like-for-like replacement. In Scotland, where the submarines are based, opposition reaches 75%.

Those looking for an immediate change in policy won't feel too hopeful when they look to the regions. In Scotland Labour has been evasive. Leader Johann Lamont has avoided making a commitment one way or the other, and all but four MSPs abstained when the issue was last debated in Holyrood. In contrast Carwyn Jones, the First Minister of Wales, is very clear in his support, and has argued for the submarines to be moved into Welsh waters in the event of Scottish independence.

The fact that the Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg and Vince Cable in particular, oppose renewal means that it will definitely be an issue in the next election. It's an either/or issue, so it would be a hard one to fudge, and all parties will need to address it as part of their defence policies. In an age of cuts and austerity it will be difficult for Labour in particular to explain why they support committing so much money towards trident when the economy is fragile and millions are out of work.

Over the last few years the party has been forced to confront a number of the conventional wisdoms of the Blair/ Brown era. Key figures, such as John Prescott, Douglas Alexander and David Miliband, have all publically questioned their support for the Iraq war and some of the foreign policy priorities they pursued. During his campaign to become party leader Ed said the ongoing defence review "should look at the totality of our conventional and nuclear capabilities, considering both our defence needs and what our priorities are in the changing economic climate. Defence should not be exempted from the tough spending choices we need to face." If he is preparing to announce a U-turn then there are many he will need to convince first, including, crucuially, shadow defence minister Jim Murphy. Nevertheless, the inclusion of known opponents such as Emily Thornberry and Jon Cruddas in the shadow cabinet suggests that there is definitely a debate to be had.

Those of us who support disarmament long for a day when politicians end the perpetual arms race and focus on issues closer to home. Trident itself is part of a political mindset that says Britain should be playing an aggressive and interventionist role abroad. They essentially play an expensive, status boosting, political role rather than serving any military purpose, a point Tony Blair made in his autobiography. However it is also important to consider their potential impact. It should be emphasised that one trident submarine has the power to kill 5.4 million people, and it would do so indiscriminately. The impact would make Hiroshima pale in comparison. There are horrible things to die for, but I hate to think that a single person anywhere in the world could ever be be put to an early grave for the sake of Labour maintaining its credentials for being 'strong' on defence.

For that reason the decision will be central to establishing what kind image Ed has for Britain. Does he believe that we should be looking ahead with pretences of being a military superpower? By the time of the next election Scots may have chosen to end the union. If that's the case then would he be willing to relocate the submarines? The MoD has suggested it would be very expensive, if not impossible. If he sincerely believes in renewal then I would be disappointed, however, if he is one of the 'sensible' people that his colleague referred to then he needs to make that known.