Trident: to keep, scrap or downgrade

Trident: to keep, scrap or downgrade

Britain is divided on whether to keep, scrap or downgrade ‘Trident’, but support for maintaining the current nuclear system rises to a majority if the possibility of a cheaper alternative is removed.

YouGov was commissioned by the House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee to produce a study of British public opinion on the future of the United Kingdom’s Trident nuclear weapons system.

The purpose of this study was to explore public attitudes beyond the stand-alone questions that often characterise opinion-research on the subject.

Three separate, nationally representative samples were fielded to test and compare the impact of several factors, including a forced-choice or ‘squeeze’ question removing the alternative of a cheaper option for maintaining a nuclear weapons system; exposure to positive/negative arguments about the role and value of nuclear weapons; and the introduction of information about the costs of maintaining the current nuclear weapons system.

Each survey was fielded to nationally representative samples of the adult British population, and the questionnaire was externally validated by Dr Kate Hudson, General Secretary of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and Professor Malcolm Chalmers, Director of Defence Studies at the Royal United Services Institute.

In summary, results show the public is broadly divided on the essential 3-options question of whether to keep, scrap or downgrade Trident. But support for maintaining the current system rises to a majority when respondents are asked which option they would prefer – between keeping or scrapping – if the government ruled that alternative systems were not an option.

Attitudes to the broader debate on nuclear weapons reflect several majority views that transcend party divides, including strong concern that having nuclear weapons begets their proliferation elsewhere, alongside a similarly strong view that they remain necessary in the modern world by helping to deter threats and great power conflict.

Results further show that a majority tend to overestimate the cost of Trident while Liberal Democrat voters appear more likely than supporters of other major parties to shift opinion and increase support for keeping Trident in response to additional information on the issue.

‘3-options’ and the ‘squeeze’ question

In the first experiment, a nationally representative sample of 1997 British adults was shown the following explanatory text:

‘The United Kingdom has a sea-based nuclear weapons system using four submarines, which are reaching the end of their life. Some people say the government should order four new submarines over the next ten years to maintain the United Kingdom’s current nuclear weapons system. Other people say the United Kingdom should try to find a cheaper system for keeping nuclear weapons. Some say we should give up nuclear weapons altogether’.

As Table 1 shows, respondents were then asked a 3-options question about whether the United Kingdom should: [1] order four new submarines to maintain its nuclear weapons system; [2] try to find a cheaper system for keeping nuclear weapons; or [3] give up nuclear weapons altogether.

According to these results, public opinion is broadly divided on the issue, with roughly a third (32%) choosing either ‘maintain’ or ‘find a cheaper system’ respectively (34%), while 20% prefer to ‘give up nuclear weapons altogether’.

Table 1: Which of the following statements comes closest to your view?

Total %

Con %

Lab %

LD %

UKIP %

The United Kingdom should order four new submarines to maintain its nuclear weapons system

32

49

25

12

48

The United Kingdom should try to find a cheaper system for keeping nuclear weapons

34

35

34

47

35

The United Kingdom should give up nuclear weapons altogether

20

8

26

33

12

Don't know

14

8

14

8

5

Fieldwork was conducted online between 23-24 April, 2013, with a total sample of 1997 British adults. The data has been weighted and the results are representative of all British adults aged 18 or over.

Among individual political parties, answers from Conservative and UKIP supporters are similar, with nearly half in each case who favour maintaining like-for-like, while roughly a third prefer to look for a cheaper option. Labour supporters appear broadly divided across the three options, while only 12% of Lib Dems say they prefer to keep like-for-like, versus roughly half of Libs Dems who prefer trying to find a cheaper option and roughly a third wanting to abandon Trident.

Respondents were then posed a squeeze question that removed the cheaper alternative and asked which option they would prefer ‘if the UK Government decided there is no cheaper alternative for an effective nuclear weapons system’, and they ‘had to choose between either keeping the current nuclear weapons system or giving up nuclear weapons altogether’.

In this case, as Table 2 shows, overall support for keeping the current system rises by 24 points from 32% to 56%. Support for giving up nuclear weapons increases by a smaller 9-point margin from 20% to 29%.

Conservative and UKIP figures broadly mirror each other again, with 79% and 71% respectively saying the United Kingdom should maintain the current system, versus 13% and 18% respectively choosing the ‘give up’ option.

In contrast, Labour and Lid Dem supporters reflect near opposing numbers from each other, with Labour supporters choosing 48% ‘maintain’ versus 37% ‘give up’, while Lib Dem results show 50% preferring to ‘give up’ versus 37% for ‘maintain’.

Table 2: Which of the following statements comes closest to your view?

*If the government decided there is no cheaper alternative…*

Total %

Con %

Lab %

Lib Dem %

UKIP %

The United Kingdom should order four new submarines to maintain its nuclear weapons system.

56

79

48

37

71

The United Kingdom should give up nuclear weapons altogether

29

13

37

50

18

Don't know

15

8

15

13

11

Fieldwork was conducted online between 23-24 April, 2013, with a total sample of 1997 British Adults. The data has been weighted and the results are representative of all British adults aged 18 or over.

Nuclear weapons in the wider world – a necessary evil?

For the second experiment, these same questions were posed to a separate, nationally representative sample of 1903 British adults.

This time, however, respondents were first asked to say how persuasive, if at all, they found a randomized set of statements that were balanced between pro and con perspectives about the role and value of nuclear weapons.

These included:

Pro:

  • Nuclear weapons help to keep the peace because they create uncertainty in the minds of potential attackers and make wars between the major powers unthinkable
  • Nuclear weapons are still necessary today because some countries are building new nuclear weapons systems and others are trying to get their own
  • If the United Kingdom abandoned its nuclear weapons, then it could be seen as a less important country in the world

Con:

  • Having nuclear weapons makes the world more dangerous, not less, because we encourage other countries to get them by having them ourselves
  • The United Kingdom doesn't need its own nuclear weapons to have influence because some other countries have a lot of influence without having their own nuclear weapons
  • Nuclear weapons are unnecessary today because they don't help us to face the major challenges of the 21st Century like terrorism, organised crime and scarce resources

Responses help to emphasise several majority British views to the nuclear debate that to some extent transcend party divides.

With near similar results, the two most persuasive arguments include one each from the pro and con lists. (See Table 3)

61% of respondents overall chose ‘persuasive’ versus 25% who chose ‘not persuasive’ to describe the argument that ‘Having nuclear weapons makes the world more dangerous, not less, because we encourage other countries to get them by having them ourselves’ was described as persuasive.’

A similar 58% of respondents overall chose ‘persuasive’ versus 28% who chose ‘not persuasive’ to describe the argument that ‘Nuclear weapons are still necessary today because some countries are building new nuclear weapons systems and others are trying to get their own’.

Table 3: Thinking about nuclear weapons, please say how persuasive, if at all, you find the following statements.

Total
persuasive %

Total
unpersuasive %

Don't know %

Net
persuasive

Having nuclear weapons makes the world more dangerous, not less, because we encourage other countries to get them by having them ourselves

61

25

14

36

Nuclear weapons are still necessary today because some countries are building new nuclear weapons systems and others are trying to get their own

58

28

14

30

Nuclear weapons help to keep the peace because they create uncertainty in the minds of potential attackers and make wars between the major powers unthinkable

54

32

14

22

Nuclear weapons are unnecessary today because they don't help us to face the major challenges of the 21st Century like terrorism, organised crime and scarce resources

48

36

15

12

If the United Kingdom abandoned its nuclear weapons, then it could be seen as a less important country in the world

46

38

17

8

The United Kingdom doesn't need its own nuclear weapons to have influence because some other countries have a lot of influence without having their own nuclear weapons

41

42

18

-1

 Fieldwork was conducted online between 18-19 April, 2013, with a total sample of 1903 British adults. The data has been weighted and the results are representative of all British adults aged 18 or over.

In both cases, these arguments were described as persuasive by a majority of supporters from the three major parties and UKIP.

This is not to ignore important political distinctions in the scale of these majorities. In response to the ‘con’ argument about nuclear weapons making the world more dangerous, the two liberal parties present larger majorities of 65% (Labour) and 74% (Lib Dem) describing the argument as persuasive, while the two conservative parties register lower majorities of 54% (Con) and 56% (UKIP).

Likewise in reverse, conservative supporters register stronger positive majorities of 75% (Con) and 74% (UKIP) towards the ‘pro’ argument about nuclear weapons still being necessary, compared with smaller liberal majorities of 55% (Lab) and 58% (Lib Dem).

Similar trends are evident in response to the third most persuasive argument, albeit showing a slimmer overall majority, with 54% overall and majorities among all four listed parties saying ‘persuasive’ in response to the argument that ‘Nuclear weapons help to keep the peace because they create uncertainty in the minds of potential attackers and make wars between the major powers unthinkable’.

These figures suggest two significant contours in British attitudes to the subject of nuclear weapons in general: first, a majority of the public share reasonable concerns that having nuclear weapons begets the further proliferation of such weapons; second, varying majorities across the parties are also partial to arguments that nuclear weapons remain necessary in today’s world, and help to keep the peace by deterring threats and great power conflict.

A notable flexibility in Lib Dems attitudes

Following the pro/con arguments, this sample was asked the same pair of questions on the future of Trident as were asked in the first sample.

As Tables 4a and 4b suggest, exposure to the pro/con section has little effect on overall results of the ‘3-options’ and squeeze questions compared with the first sample.

Table 4a: Which of the following statements comes closest to your view?

Survey 1

Total %

Survey 2

Total %

The United Kingdom should order four new submarines to maintain its nuclear weapons system

32

31

The United Kingdom should try to find a cheaper system for keeping nuclear weapons

34

33

The United Kingdom should give up nuclear weapons altogether

20

19

Don't know

14

17

 Table 4b: Which of the following statements comes closest to your view?

*If the government decided there is no cheaper alternative…*

Survey 1

Total %

Survey 2

Total %

The United Kingdom should order four new submarines to maintain its nuclear weapons system.

56

53

The United Kingdom should give up nuclear weapons altogether

29

29

Don't know

15

18

Fieldwork for Survey 1 was conducted online between 23-24 April, 2013, with a total sample of 1997 British adults. Fieldwork for Survey 2 was conducted online between 18-19 April, 2013, with a total sample of 1903 British adults. In both cases, the data has been weighted and the results are representative of all British adults aged 18 or over.

However, while there is little change between Samples 1 and 2 in responses from Conservatives, Labour and UKIP supporters, there is a notable shift in the balance of Lib Dem support for different Trident futures in both the 3-options and squeeze question.

When the 3-options question is posed ‘cold’ to Sample 1, 47% of Lib Dems prefer trying to ‘find a cheaper system for keeping nuclear weapons’, versus 12% who prefer to ‘maintain’ the current system and 33% who prefer to ‘give up nuclear weapons altogether’.

After exposure to the pro/con arguments in Sample 2, however, the proportion of Lib Dems preferring to ‘give up nuclear weapons’ remains largely the same with 32%, but the proportion who prefer trying to ‘find a cheaper system’ falls ten points from 47% to 37% while the proportion of Lib Dems preferring to ‘maintain’ the current system rises by 12 points from 12% to 24%.

Table 5a: Which of the following statements comes closest to your view?

Con %

Lab %

Lib Dem %

UKIP %

Surv 1

Surv 2

Surv 1

Surv 2

Surv 1

Surv 2

Surv 1

Surv 2

The United Kingdom should order four new submarines to maintain its nuclear weapons system

49

49

25

25

12

24

48

46

The United Kingdom should try to find a cheaper system for keeping nuclear weapons

35

35

34

36

47

37

35

39

The United Kingdom should give up nuclear weapons altogether

8

7

26

23

33

32

12

8

Don't know

8

9

14

16

8

8

5

8

 









Fieldwork for Survey 1 was conducted online between 23-24 April, 2013, with a total sample of 1997 British adults. Fieldwork for Survey 2 was conducted online between 18-19 April, 2013, with a total sample of 1903 British adults. In both cases, the data has been weighted and the results are representative of all British adults aged 18 or over.

Similarly, when the squeeze question is asked ‘cold’ to Sample 1, 50% of Lib Dems say the United Kingdom should ‘give up nuclear weapons altogether’, versus 37% saying the United Kingdom should ‘maintain its nuclear weapons system’.

After exposure to the pro/con arguments in Sample 2, however, the proportion of Lib Dems preferring to ‘give up nuclear weapons’ falls in line with the proportion saying the United Kingdom should ‘maintain’ its current system, with 46% in each case.

Consequently, while Lib Dem supporters appear most strongly opposed to maintaining ‘like-for-like’ in stand-alone cold questions on the future of Trident, they also show a greater potential, at least in these results, for shifts of opinion in response to more information about the issue, compared with supporters of other major parties.

Table 5b: Which of the following statements comes closest to your view?

*If the government decided there is no cheaper alternative…*

Con %

Lab %

Lib Dem %

UKIP %

Surv 1

Surv 2

Surv 1

Surv 2

Surv 1

Surv 2

Surv 1

Surv 2

The United Kingdom should order four new submarines to maintain its nuclear weapons system.

79

75

48

46

37

46

71

79

The United Kingdom should give up nuclear weapons altogether

13

14

37

36

50

46

18

16

Don't know

8

11

15

18

13

8

11

5

Fieldwork for Survey 1 was conducted online between 23-24 April, 2013, with a total sample of 1997 British adults. Fieldwork for Survey 2 was conducted online between 18-19 April, 2013, with a total sample of 1903 British adults. In both cases, the data has been weighted and the results are representative of all British adults aged 18 or over.

The impact of thinking about cost

For the third experiment, the 3-options and squeeze questions were similarly posed to a separate, nationally representative sample of 1722 British adults.

This time the sample was first asked to estimate the current annual cost of maintaining the Trident system.

Respondents were shown the following explanatory text:

‘In a one-year period from 2011 – 2012, total public spending by the UK government came to about £665 billion. Of this, about £121 billion was spent on health care, about £91 billion on education, about £39 billion on defence and about £6 billion on energy and climate policy.’

After providing some context of wider government spending, respondents were then asked to say how many billion pounds they thought the government spent on maintaining the United Kingdom’s current nuclear weapons system in the one-year period from 2011 – 2012, answering in whole numbers in a box provided.

The mean average estimate by respondents was 15 billion, and as Figure 1 shows, 71% overestimated the cost with answers ranging between 6 and 100+ £billion.

Figure 1: How many billion pounds did the government spend on maintaining the current nuclear weapons system from 2011 – 2012?

Fieldwork was conducted online between 21-22 April, 2013, with a total sample of 1722 British Adults. The data has been weighted and the results are representative of all British adults aged 18 or over.

The sample was then shown the following explanatory text…

‘In a one-year period from 2011 – 2012, about £2 billion was spent on maintaining the United Kingdom’s current nuclear weapons system. This is about 0.3% of all UK public spending in that period and about 6% of the annual defence budget.’

…and then asked the same 3-options and squeeze questions as posed to the previous two samples.

Again, at the level of overall results, there is little significant change in the balance of preferences, although this time there is a small but perceptible shift in balance between those who favour maintaining the current system or trying to find a cheaper option, changing from 32% for ‘maintain’ versus 34% saying ‘cheaper’ to a wider 36% versus 31% respectively.

Results further show a more pronounced version of the Lib Dem shift seen in the previous experiment.

After the introduction of information about cost, Lib Dem opinion becomes broadly more divided. Compared with ‘cold’ results from the 3-options question in Sample 1, the proportion of Lib Dems who prefer trying to ‘find a cheaper system’ falls sixteen points from 47% to 31% while the proportion of Lib Dems preferring to ‘maintain’ the current system rises again by 12 points from 12% to 24%. The proportion of Lib Dems preferring to ‘give up nuclear weapons’ also now falls 5 points from 33% to 28%.

Similarly, compared with ‘cold’ results from the squeeze question in Sample 1, the proportion of Lib Dems preferring ‘give up nuclear weapons’ now falls to 42% - and less than the proportion of Lib Dems saying the United Kingdom should ‘maintain’ its current system with 47%.

Conservative and UKIP supporters also show a notable but smaller shift between Samples 1 and 3, as the gap in the 3-options question widens between those favouring ‘maintain’ and ‘trying to find a cheaper option’ –from 49% versus 35% among Conservatives to 55% versus 29%, and 48% versus 35% among UKIP supporters to 53% versus 28%.

See the full results

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