Why the Trident debate is (largely) one about symbolism
Back in the late 80s at an Admiralty Board lunch, I received a memorable lesson in the symbolic importance of the Trident missiles system.
I was Defence Correspondent for The Independent at that time, as the admirals - sat resplendent in uniform beneath sumptuous paintings of fighting sail - were stunned into shocked silence by Peter Snow, Newsnight's then presenter and diplomatic editor.
"Trident!", he began, "phallic symbol? Yes? No?"
The First Sea Lord and others looked at Snowy in consternation - it was like one of those Bateman cartoons of a terrible social faux pas. I couldn't stop myself giggling, as Newsnight's dreadnought ploughed on, "huge, towering, virility symbol? Yes? No? What?"
It was only once Peter had thrown them a line by moving away from strictly phallic imagery that the naval chiefs started to form an answer, and the moment passed.
This week's focus on Trident in the foreign affairs debates (of wannabee foreign secretaries on Monday and party leaders tomorrow) has reminded me of Snowy's point: that the debate about Britain's nuclear weapons is (largely) one about symbolism.
There seems to be a received wisdom among many in the Westminister bubble that the Lib Dem's rejection of a 'like for like' replacement of Trident marks them out as hopelessly naive or weak.
Yet I remember not long before the 2006 decision in principle to replace Trident with a similar submarine launched ballistic missile system, one senior admiral telling me that a combination of a couple of extra hunter killer submarines with nuclear armed cruise missiles might actually be a better option for the Royal Navy.
At that point the senior service did not dare hope for a like for like replacement (because of its huge cost) and could see the advantages of having a flexible fleet of 8-10 hunter killers, any of which might be nuclear armed.
But Tony Blair and Gordon Brown opted to replace Trident with the speed and secrecy that have become customary in Britain's nuclear decision making.
Today's comments in the Times by some senior former army officers underline that there is a perfectly respectable defence debate to be had that replacing Trident with a similar system is too expensive and represents overkill shows that Nick Clegg and his party cannot be accused of irresponsibility.
Trident was chosen by a Cabinet committee in 1979 because it satisfied the so-called 'Moscow Criterion', a British government requirement that the national nuclear weapons' system be able to destroy the Soviet Union's capital, despite its anti-missile defences. How relevant is the Moscow Criterion today?
Perhaps the whole problem with cruise missiles tucked away in hunter killer submarines or air launched missiles in bunkers at RAF bases is that they do not constitute that kind of overt national virility symbol so gloriously described by Peter Snow.
The debate is worth having - and at least Trident provides ones area where the electorate is being offered a clear choice.