For governments seeking to strengthen their own agendas it can help to have a minimally informed or, at least, somewhat apathetic electorate. And so important political decisions are often veiled in a cloak of terminology that alienates voters - especially young voters.
To me this tactic is glaringly apparent in the British government's approach to nuclear weapons. As the time draws closer for them to decide on the future of Trident, Britain's nuclear weapons system, it seems it has never been easier or more desirable for them to make the nuclear issue even more unpalatable. And they're succeeding. Recent research by WMD Awareness pointed towards serious misinformation of young voters on this issue.
According to their survey, conducted by ComRes, young people radically underestimate the lifetime costs of renewing Trident: of the 4,207 people surveyed, a third (34%) believe that renewing Trident will cost up to £5 billion. In fact, it's estimated to cost up to £100 billion. That's roughly equivalent to four million students' tuition fees, or 1.5 million affordable homes.
Not only do we young voters fail to gauge the financial burden Trident imposes accurately, the research also found that we don't know much about the legal implications of our warheads either. Almost half of the respondents (45%) didn't know whether or not the UK government is legally bound to work towards disarmament under the Non-Proliferation Treaty. We certainly are - indeed, the international community's failure to do so has been the subject of much criticism recently. So much so that the Marshall Islands - a tiny Pacific nation that has faced years of devastation as a result of nuclear testing - has attempted to bring legal action against nuclear armed-states, including the UK and Russia, for failing to disarm.
What I find most interesting about this research is that despite the general lack of information about the UK's role in the nuclear world, opinion among young people still leans overwhelmingly in opposition to nuclear weapons. More than half (51%) of 18-35 year olds questioned agree that the system should be disbanded or reduced in size and capacity, compared to a paltry 19% who support Trident being renewed. Meanwhile 54% think nuclear weapons are too expensive for governments to maintain, despite the fact that the majority think they cost £95 billion less than they really do.
The fact that a majority of young people have strong opinions on the issue suggests there is potential for a lively public debate with wide participation. This potential for debate means there is hope for greater pressure on decision-makers to listen to what the electorate think about where these large amounts of public funds will be spent for decades to come. So all's not lost for those who are against Trident - but this depends heavily on how much impetus and media attention the nuclear issue can gain.
Lack of publicity over the issue is a vicious cycle. It's clearly within the government's interest not to catalyse public debate over Trident renewal as this makes the issue less politicised and less controversial. If voters don't care about Trident, it's unlikely to be a hot topic of debate in Parliament. So when time eventually comes for a decision on Trident's future, there will be less opposition and it will be a minimal concern of the electorate in 2015. But the less the issue is publicised by the government, the less national media will discuss it and the further public debate deteriorates. Young people are already the least politically mobile age group, and this lack of engagement and reluctance on the part of government officials plays to their advantage.
But the WMD Awareness research brings us to an interesting conclusion: that the usefulness and relevance of nuclear weapons relative to their expense is conflated, resulting in young people having skewed perceptions of how important and costly they are. This explains why so few people can accurately gauge how much Trident renewal will cost. In spite of this, half of young people think they are too expensive for governments to maintain. If they knew how expensive they really are, this figure could and should be far higher.
Coupled with the ubiquitous narrative young people are exposed to, asserting that nuclear weapons are essential to prevent Britain from foreign attacks and nuclear blackmail, the necessity of nuclear weapons appears to be taken as given, thereby extinguishing any public debate. This leads to discourse being skewed in favour of policy makers, and this has to change.
What's clear is that a strong grassroots movement is needed, and it has to happen fast or we risk tying Britons to a decision that they themselves have had no part in making. It's time for young people to start talking about Trident.
This post is part of Talking Trident, a national conversation about nuclear weapons in Britain. Have your say #TalkingTrident
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