Does the British public support Trident? Opinion polls say no
Polling data suggests majority UK public opposes Trident renewal and support disarmament. Harry Hayball reports.
The renewal of the Trident nuclear weapons system is often framed, particularly within the Labour Party, as a question of electability: the British public simply will not support 'unilateral' British nuclear disarmament. Any party that advocates this would be decimated come election day.
What do the opinion polls say, however?
Between 2005 and the present, thirteen representative polls have offered a straight choice between renewing Trident or not. Opinion has varied from poll to poll and from year to year, but seven surveys have found more opposition to renewal than support.
The average of the results was just 39.4% in favour of renewing Trident and 44.4% opposed, with the rest unsure.
In ten of these polls, meanwhile, the choice was clearly between keeping or scrapping nuclear arms altogether.
In half of these polls respondents favoured disarmament, and the average of these results shows a roughly even split: 42.5% in favour of nuclear disarmament, 42.2% in favour of Trident, and the rest unsure.
The most recent poll gives insight into British opinion at the moment. Asked whether they support or oppose the ‘UK having a nuclear weapon' or 'getting rid of its nuclear weapons', 49% supported the nuclear option, and 28% supported disarmament. 54% supported and 22% opposed Britain renewing its Trident nuclear weapons programme as long as other countries have nuclear weapons.
But when asked about Britain leading the way in nuclear disarmament by not renewing its Trident nuclear weapons programme, 31% expressed support and just 35% opposition.
The average of these four questions is less than half of the population, 46.5%, currently for nuclear weapons, and 26.5% against.
What conclusions can we draw from this data?
Firstly, contrary to the 'electability' argument, the British public is not wedded to Britain's nuclear weapons. About a quarter of the population consistently advocates nuclear disarmament, and in the majority of polls in the past decade most people actually favoured this option over Trident.
This is remarkable when one considers that until recently, all the main political parties have been in favour of Trident renewal.
Secondly, a large number of people are unsure about this issue. This means that there is plenty of scope for the disarmament option to achieve even greater support when the issues are properly raised and debated.
Thirdly, the polls reveal considerable concern about the cost of Trident. In recent years the option of a cheaper, less powerful alternative – for example, having fewer submarines and (like the majority of nuclear-armed states) non-continuous activity has often been given.
This has tended to be supported by both sides of the argument, but particularly supporters of Trident.
In 2013–15, four polls gave this option, and the average of the results was just 35.0% in favour of Trident, with 21.5% still for full disarmament and 27% for a less powerful alternative.
When the cost of Trident is mentioned, support for it tends to drop quite considerably. In a 2005 poll, for example, 44% supported and 46% opposed Trident, but if an alternative spending proposal was mentioned – the number of schools that could be built instead – the result was just 33% in favour and 54% against Trident.
Similarly, a 2009 poll that offered alternative spending proposals found just 30% opting to spend the money on nuclear weapons.
Moreover, these polls put the cost of Trident at only £20bn. But this has now risen to £31bn and another £10bn set in reserve, with total life-time costs expected to exceed £180bn.
A poll in 2010 that mentioned Trident's annual costs found 63% in favour of nuclear disarmament. Saving money by scrapping Trident, and - as well as defence diversification and protecting jobs related to Trident - spending some of that money on other needs could therefore be a powerful argument in favour of disarmament.
Fourthly, as the latest poll indicates, placing this issue in the context of international disarmament seems to increase opposition to renewal. Polling tends to show strong support in the UK for the United Nations and international law, and thus framing it in these terms could win greater support for disarmament.
Today, nuclear weapons are not a salient issue in the British public. It is not high on the list of their concerns, and will not be an issue on which an election is won or lost.
Given a proper debate, the polling data suggests that the majority of the British public could oppose the renewal of Trident and support nuclear disarmament, as it has a number of times in the past.
Moreover, given the strength of the arguments weighed against Trident, if this is one of the issues on which the Labour Party actively opposes the current government, majority opposition to Trident seems like the most likely outcome.
Notes – Opinion Polling Data
Dr. Nick Ritchie and Paul Ingram reviewed all polling data between 2005 and July 2013, in their article 'Trident in UK Politics and Public Opinion', which contains links to the polls in question. Subsequent polls have been conducted by YouGov and Comres, and are available on their websites.
Source: Stop the War Coalition