To this day, the Ministry of Defence responds to all enquiries about submarine operations with a simple phrase: “The Ministry of Defence does not comment on submarine operations.” Written with privileged access to both documents and personnel, The Silent Deep is the first authoritative history of the British submarine service since the end of the Second World War.
Operation ‘Relentless’ is the oldest standing order across the UK’s Armed Forces. It began with the first Polaris patrol in 1968 – to be precise, when the Royal Navy took over the deterrent role from the Royal Air Force in June 1969 – and has carried a variety of codewords of which Relentless is the latest. It embraces the UK’s nuclear-weapons firing chain from the Prime Minister and his special authentication codes to the ‘Vanguard’ class submarine on patrol in the silent deeps of the North Atlantic. Operation ‘Relentless’ is signed off by the Chief of the Defence Staff, who lays upon the Tridentine parts of the Royal Navy, its boats, berths, support staff and suppliers, the duty of round-the-clock Continuous at-Sea Deterrence. It is also the most frequently exercised of the standby requirements laid upon the UK’s Armed Forces.
New Prime Ministers are swiftly indoctrinated into its instruments and procedures – nuclear release being, with the secret agency briefings, the most sensitive part of the induction of every new Head of Government. This is not a world of collective Cabinet government or House of Commons votes on the use of force, but is as exclusively prime ministerial as it gets (though each Prime Minister chooses two or three Nuclear Deputies, appointed personally rather than according to the Cabinet hierarchy, lest he or she is wiped out by a bolt from the blue). It is an operation that if, heaven forbid, the UK came to launching a Trident missile, would take just under an hour to propel 60 tons of D5 out of the Atlantic.
Like Tony Blair, Britain’s current Prime Minister, David Cameron, is determined to see the United Kingdom continue as a nuclear-weapons state. On Thursday, 3 October 2013, we went to interview the Prime Minister in his office in No. 10 Downing Street and asked him how he approached the task:
‘I asked John Major in and asked for his advice and I talked to him about it. I also talked to the Chiefs of Staff, I talked to CDS. But then, in the end, it is you in the office on your own. I sat at that chair and there’s a great big shredder that was placed right here and you write . . . and then you seal it up. Hopefully nobody will ever see these letters. Each of them goes into the safe of the Trident submarine and then hopefully when you stop being Prime Minister they take it out and burn it and no one will have ever opened it.’
But Cameron does admit that ‘it’s not unthinkable at some time in the future someone will come to a different decision. I don’t think Britain will give up nuclear deterrence altogether. I think that is out. I’d be very surprised if that happened in my lifetime. What I’m saying is that, at the moment, we have a deterrent that is the real thing, that is the genuine article, it’s as good as it could be, it is submarine-based, it’s continuously at sea and all the rest of it. I think there are people in politics like the Liberal Democrats arguing for deterrence lite. I think the arguments don’t stack up. But could I envisage a future Prime Minister thinking, well, maybe it’s worth the risk. I wouldn’t take that view, but the argument’s out there. I think the idea of a Prime Minister giving up nuclear weapons altogether, I don’t think that would happen.’
Before the ‘Main Gate’ decision is taken in 2016 the ‘Successor’ programme had to await the results of two political events, both of which had the potential to cause complications. The first was the September 2014 referendum on Scottish Independence during which the separatist Scottish National Party, which has long favoured unilateral nuclear disarmament, vowed to remove Trident and the ‘Vanguard’ class submarines from Scotland in the event of a yes vote. UK Government spokesmen repeatedly insisted that ‘unilateral disarmament is not an option. We are not planning for Scottish independence and as such it is difficult to estimate the total costs, or how long it would take, to replicate the facilities at Faslane, but it would likely cost taxpayers billions of pounds and take many years.’ On 18 September 2014 Scotland voted against becoming an independent country by 55 per cent to 45 per cent. A yes vote would certainly have given the SNP a mandate to remove Trident from Scotland, but exactly how this would have been achieved remains unclear.
The second event was the May 2015 general election. Within days of taking over as Labour’s Shadow Defence Secretary in October 2013, Ver- non Coaker visited the BAE Shipyard in Barrow to display his personal commitment to Labour retaining an independent deterrent and continu- ing with the ‘Successor’ programme. ‘In an uncertain and unpredictable world in which other nations possess nuclear weapons and nuclear proliferation remains a deep concern, Labour believes it is right that the United Kingdom retains the minimum credible independent nuclear deterrent.’ But given the Labour party’s tendency to neuralgia on the nuclear-weapons front, it looked unlikely that a future Labour Government would go straight into ‘Main Gate’ discussions without a review first. ‘We will continue to look at ways in which the Successor programme can be delivered efficiently, through the strategic defence and security and zero based spending reviews we have pledged to conduct under a Labour government,’ said Coaker. Yet if such a review (a) lingered long or (b) plumped for an alternative system or (c) went for three Successors instead of four,the 2028 target would be missed and CASD, at the very least, broken for a time, as the Vanguards left service.
Another complication in the months leading up to the election was the increased support for the SNP. Numerous polls projected the SNP secur- ing 54 of Scotland’s 59 seats, seriously weakening Labour’s ability to secure enough seats to form a majority government. If the projections were accurate and Labour failed to secure the necessary seats outside of Scotland it would have to either govern as a minority government or attempt to form a coalition with other parties. One possible outcome was a Labour and SNP coalition, with the SNP holding the balance of power in any negotiations. The SNP’s leader, Nicola Sturgeon, initially said that the non-renewal and removal of Trident from the Clyde was a red-line issue in any post-election negotiations but she later appeared to change position and said that the SNP would simply vote against the ‘Main Gate’ decision when the vote was held in Parliament.
Despite this apparent shift, the Conservative Party was quick to exploit the possibility of a Labour/SNP coalition. In early April 2015, with less than a month to go until the election, the Conservative Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, put Trident at the heart of the election debate and claimed that in order to secure support from the SNP the Labour leader, Ed Mili- band, would compromise national security and ‘stab the United Kingdom in the back’ by negotiating away Trident and abandoning any plans to go ahead with the ‘Successor’ programme. A furious Miliband retorted: ‘National security is too important to play politics with. I will never com- promise our national security, I will never negotiate away our national security’, and the Labour Foreign Secretary, Douglas Alexander, insisted that ‘Labour’s commitment to continuous at-sea nuclear deterrent was not up for negotiation. The experts say that will require four submarines, we will review that pending any technological advance.’
On 7 May 2015 a Conservative Government was elected with a twelve- seat majority over all other parties (331 seats to Labour’s 232) on a mandate to renew Trident and maintain CASD. The Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, confirmed in Parliament on 8 June 2015 that the Government is ‘committed to replacing all four Vanguard submarines with new subma- rines that will serve this country until at least 2060’. There are no plans to revisit the commitment in the next Strategic Defence and Security Review and the ‘Main Gate’ decision is scheduled for 2016 to allow an in- service date for the first ‘Successor’ submarine of 2028.
Given the Conservative majority, ‘Successor’ will almost certainly go ahead. But the Conservative Government can no longer count on the support of the Labour Party, which on the morning of Saturday 12 September 2015, in the Queen Elizabeth Conference Centre at Westminster, elected the veteran left-wing rebel and Islington North MP, Jeremy Corbyn, as leader of the Labour Party.
In the hours following his victory, Corbyn, the Vice Chairman of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, made it clear that he intended to take a different approach towards nuclear policy. There are deep divisions within the Labour party, with many MPs, including the Deputy Leader, Tom Watson, in favour of the ‘Successor’ programme. The debate will be difficult, but Corbyn has already said that he will not resign if the party should decide to continue supporting the British nuclear deterrent: ‘We are not going to divide and ruin ourselves as a party over this.’
Our hunch is that there will almost certainly be a British bomb with a ‘bloody Union Jack on top of it’ somewhere in the grey wastelands of the North Atlantic in the 2030s, 2040s and 2050s, carried by one of the submarines currently being laid out on the computer screens in Bar- row’s Blue Lagoon. When faced with the nuclear question British Prime Ministers, as primary guardians of national security, seem, knowingly or unknowingly, to have been disciples of Cicero, who wrote in De Legibus:
Salus populi suprema est lex.
The safety of the people is the chief law
The Silent Deep: The Royal Navy Submarine Service Since 1945, written by Peter Hennessy and James Jinks, is available now.
Peter Hennessy, one of Britain’s best-known historians, is Attlee Professor of History at Queen Mary, University of London. He is the author of Never Again: Britain 1945-51 (winner of the NCR and Duff Cooper Prizes), the bestselling The Prime Minister and The Secret State: Preparing For The Worst 1945-2010. He was made an independent crossbench life peer in 2010.
James Jinks completed his PhD under Peter Hennessy at Queen Mary. His first book was 50 Years of the Polaris Sales Agreement, commissioned by Her Majesty’s Government to mark 50 years of Polaris. He is now at work on A Very British Bomb, a history of the British nuclear deterrent.