With the UK’s nuclear weapons system approaching the end of its half-life, the government has already begun planning for its replacement at a cost estimated by Ministers to be around £20bn. A YouGov poll however reveals that support among Opinion Formers for such a costly undertaking is far from unanimous.
We asked members of YouGov’s UK Opinion Former panel, which draws leaders from the worlds of business, politics, the media, charities, public sector and academia amongst others, whether they preferred to retain Trident, upgrade it, or abandon the nuclear deterrent altogether, with no clear preference emerging. Just over a quarter of Opinion Formers (27%) said “Britain should replace Trident with a new and upgraded system”, while a further quarter (25%) feel that while the nuclear deterrent is a necessary component of the United Kingdom’s defence, “there is no need to upgrade Britain's nuclear weapons system”. The most popular option, with over a third agreeing (36%), was for Britain to “disband Trident and focus defence spending on conventional weapons and forces”.
While overall results are somewhat unclear, there is a clear split in opinion amongst Opinion Formers based on who they plan to vote for in the next election. Those intending to vote Conservative next year are perhaps unsurprisingly most in favour of upgrading the system (46%, vs. 11% of Labour voters). In stark contrast, over half (52%) of Opinion formers intending to vote for Ed Miliband’s party are in favour of disbanding Britain’s nuclear capacity and devoting more money to conventional forces. A similar view is held by many prospective Liberal Democrat voters (45%).
David Cameron argued in 2013 that Britain’s deterrent was "an insurance policy that the United Kingdom cannot do without" and that a "credible and continuous independent nuclear deterrent remains a crucial component of our national security". Conversely, with key Labour support emanating from Scotland, Ed Miliband has been noticeably quiet on the issue ahead of both the referendum and next election. Our polling results however reveal that his supporters hold a very different view on the need (or lack thereof) for nuclear weapons.
Ultimately, the fate of Britain’s deterrent could all depend on Scotland. Should a ‘yes’ to independence occur, the Scottish government has pledged to remove all nuclear weapons from Scotland by 2017. Currently, the UK government has no plans to relocate its nuclear arsenal and with no readily identifiable sites to rebase the weapons system, moving them would be technically and politically problematic, not to mention expensive. Indeed, former cabinet minister Lord Forsyth warned that a ‘yes’ vote might force the UK to give up the weapons entirely. However, while defence think-tank RUSI believes a move is feasible, convincing the people of Milford Haven or Plymouth that having nuclear warheads in their backyard is a good idea remains another matter entirely.
Opinion Formers are broadly supportive of the UK maintaining some sort of nuclear deterrent. While the most-selected single response was to disband Trident, over half (52%) favour either keeping or upgrading the weapons system. Even if the government is to push ahead with an upgrade programme, the major problem will be in finding the political capital to do so. In an austere age where spending vast amounts of treasure on what is seen in some quarters as a Cold War relic, the future of Britain’s nuclear capability remains far from certain.
YouGov completed online interviews with 702 opinion formers from its UK Opinion Formers Panel. Opinion Formers are leaders in their field from business, media, politics, NGOs, academia and beyond. Fieldwork was undertaken between 31st June and 14th July 2014. The figures have not been weighted.