Abandoning Britain's nuclear deterrant would decimate entire communities
The future of the UK’s nuclear weapons is understandably highly emotive and contentious. The almost unimaginable horror of nuclear war, and changes to the balance of global power, leads many to reject the central pillar of the country’s strategy that maintaining a minimum credible deterrent makes such a catastrophe less likely, not more.
Others see the price tag and insist there must be a way to do the same job for less. Still more would hold back from committing the money until they see from where precisely the next threat will emanate, despite the real danger that if Barrow’s submarine skills base is broken up it may never be possible to reassemble it, leaving the UK without the capacity ever to build such vessels again.
So there is considerable interest beyond the Furness peninsula in the report published today by the Nuclear Education Trust on what would happen to Barrow’s economy if planned contracts to build new Trident-carrying submarines in the town were cancelled or reduced.
The report spells out that any of the identified alternative scenarios to a like-for-like replacement of the continuous at sea deterrent would have a damaging impact on jobs and prosperity in the area.
Now even as the MP for a constituency which currently has more than 5,000 people directly employed in the shipyard, I am clear that the question of whether and how to renew the UK’s nuclear deterrent must be made primarily on the grounds of national security rather than the economic impact across the UK of scrapping planned orders.
So there is a risk is that this report today could distract attention by speculating on alternatives to the current policy in the absence, thus far, of any credible evidence that such alternatives would be any cheaper or any more effective for Britain’s national security.
But nevertheless its authors do raise valid questions on the risks for economy like Barrow where one particular industry is dominant, and what should be the role of government to help such areas diversify.
Despite its reputation, Barrow is far from a one-industry town. Indeed the Furness area has the potential to become a national cradle for advanced manufacturing, as underlined the recent decision by GSK to base its cutting edge biopharmaceutical plant in the area.
Yet it is fair to say that there are few places that would be as affected by a single decision, over the deterrent, in the hands of the government of the day.
In rejecting the very idea of active industrial strategy to boost manufacturing as advocated by Labour, the Conservative-led government is abdicating its responsibility to help economies diversify and strengthen; diversification which in Barrow’s case should happen on the foundation of a thriving shipyard, not as an inadequate substitute for submarine jobs.
It is of course important to stay grounded in reality. People who are implacably opposed to nuclear weapons have been known to suggest helpful alternative product lines for Barrow shipyard such as glass-bottomed leisure submarines, ideas that should politely be filed in the draw marked (barking mad) wishful thinking.
But if we are to avoid the risk of returning to the kind of decimation of communities that scarred the Thatcher years, the government should accept it must not turn its back when jobs and investment are withdrawn.
The nation’s need for new submarines means that fate ought not to befall Barrow, but a commitment to help out rather than walk away is needed for vulnerable economies up and down the country.