By Martin Kelly
Doubts over the UK government’s commitment to Trident renewal have emerged after Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander, admitted that the UK can no longer afford to replace the nuclear weapons system.
The Lib Dem MP made the admission in an interview with the Guardian newspaper when he claimed that the current austerity engulfing the UK meant that replacing the Clyde based nuclear arsenal was “not financially realistic”.
Mr Alexander warned that the UK did not have a “magic pot of money” to pay for a “like for like” replacement system and insisted that “compelling alternatives” should now be accepted by politicians and military personnel.
In the interview he said: “Given all the financial pressures across the whole of the public sector, all the things the government has to do and wants to pay for, and all the pressures in different areas, I just think the idea that somehow, out of thin air, we can carve a multibillion pocket to pay for this, that is not financially realistic.”
The Lib Dem MP is in charge of the Cabinet Office-led Trident Alternatives Review and his admission will fuel speculation that the ground is being prepared for a U-turn on repeated pledges by the UK government to renew the weapons system.
Speaking to the newspaper, Mr Alexander added: “We are in a position where the costs of the Successor have to be paid for from within the MoD budget. There is no magic pot of money that is going to be created out of thin air to go on top of that. As a government, we have been very clear about that. Certainly myself and the chancellor.
“That very financial imperative is one of the reasons why I think this review is so important. We have already set out that it is going to take another three years to deal with the deficit. That means budgets across the board naturally have to be squeezed, including defence.”
Alexander said that the findings of the review would surprise people but refused to be drawn on what the alternatives to renewal were, describing them as top secret.
He said: “I hope [the review] will open up a wide debate, in the public, among experts and the community, around the approach we take to nuclear deterrence.
“I am not a unilateralist, I don’t think that we should not have a deterrent. But I think when budgets are under pressure, and when the assumptions that our current approach are based on are very much cold war assumptions, and we are in the 21st century and the world is changing, that this is absolutely the right time to have a serious, considered, objective look at the way in which this policy is constructed.
“We need to see if there are different ways of doing this that are more cost effective. This is the first time for a very long time these questions have been asked. We do need to ask fundamental questions about our posture.
“Is it right in the 21st century that we still need to have submarines at sea, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 12 months of the year? All those things are ripe for being reviewed and considered, and alternatives presented.
“We have just lived with these assumptions for quite a number of decades, and the notion that there is a different but credible way to think about these things may well be surprising to a lot of people. If you are prepared to take a slightly different approach, then it opens up a wider range of alternatives for consideration.
“I certainly don’t expect the review to come back and say Trident is the only alternative or there is no alternative, which is what some in other parties would say.”
The admission from the senior cabinet member is a blow to the pro-Union Better Together campaign, whose members and supporters have claimed that thousands of jobs will be created at Faslane with a renewal of the nuclear weapons system.
However this has already been challenged by the STUC who have said that spending money on renewing Trident will cost thousands of jobs in Scotland due to cash being diverted to a nuclear weapons upgrade which could be spent in other areas of the economy.
The SNP has argued that money would be better spent on conventional land and naval forces in an independent Scotland and have pledged to keep a “comparable” naval base open at Faslane.
Mr Alexander’s comments come despite the UK government having already spent £1.4billion on design work for Trident’s replacement.