Don't get defensive about defence

By Symon Hill
April 22, 2010

As the Tory and Labour leaders prepare nervously for the second round of head-to-head combat tonight, there can be little doubt that they both plan to take advantage of the foreign policy focus of the debate by attacking the Liberal Democrats’ policy on Trident.

They will win only if Clegg’s loses his nerve in the face of a militarist onslaught.

Those who take a progressive approach to issues of peace and war often get defensive. The agenda for 'defence' policy is set by pro-war, pro-nuclear politicians and their media allies, with opponents accused of weakness and naivety. In this context, I hope that Clegg will go on the offensive, mentioning Trident as soon as possible and seeing the issue as a positive one for his party rather than an awkward subject to avoid.

If he takes a firmly anti-Trident stand, speaking positively of more effective security and greater spending priorities, the polls suggest he will have the public with him.

Most politicians have still not get their heads around the reality that most British voters are now to the left of the three main party leaders when it comes to 'defence'. Polls show a majority against renewing Trident. A few days ago, it turned out that a staggering 77 per cent support the imminent withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan.

Whatever happens tonight, the backlash against Clegg is likely to lead to some drop in support. Indeed, as my colleague Simon Barrow has pointed out, the media may be preparing themselves for pre-determined stories about how he didn’t do as well this time. The very worst thing Clegg could do under this sort of pressure would be to weaken his opposition to Trident. He would lose support from among the anti-Trident majority as well as appearing weak and fickle.

As I wrote earlier in the week, Clegg could take the initiative again if he announced that the Liberal Democrats will no longer support the war in Afghanistan. Opposing nuclear weapons altogether would do him far less harm than some commentators – stuck in the world of 1980s politics – seem to believe. In the last few days, Clegg has come under fire from Plaid Cymru and the Greens for not taking a fully anti-nuclear line, opting instead to replace Trident with a smaller, cheaper nuclear weapons system – the so-called Primark Option.

My own feelings about Nick Clegg are mixed, but my respect for him will undoubtedly increase if he goes on the offensive over Trident, seizing on the issue as a vote-winner. Politicians with progressive policies on peace have spent too long getting defensive about defence.

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