Thursday, 24 January 2013

If not Trident, then what else?

There is an ongoing debate in our country about whether we should maintain our continuous at-sea nuclear deterrent through to 2042 by beginning a programme of replacing the British-made submarines that carry the American-made Trident missiles.

All three major parties in the United Kingdom currently agree that Britain should retain its nuclear deterrent with the main Labour and Conservative parties favouring a continuation of the existing arrangements whilst the smaller Liberal Democrat party (currently minor partners in the governing coalition) prefer a rethink and a switch to a potentially cheaper land or air based solution, claiming that the current system is over-the-top for future needs and the money could be better spent on conventional military assets.

There is no real discussion in mainstream politics though about whether Britain should even continue to possess weapons of mass destruction throughout the 21st Century, either from ethical or pragmatic perspectives. Despite this I'd like to initially briefly touch on these issues as my viewpoint is contrary to that of most liberals.

Does nuclear deterrence work?

Approximately two million British soldiers died in the first half of the 20th Century, large numbers of whom had been either conscripted against their will or indoctrinated by propaganda to fight varying foreign powers in a futile attempt to maintain the balance of power in the face of an increasingly industrialised approach to warfare. These conflicts inevitably cumulated in the creation of a terrifying weapon; the atomic bomb.

Since its advent in 1945, a mere three and a half thousand British military personnel have died in combat operations. Whilst each death is a tragedy I'd wager it's the smallest amount lost in any half-century period in British or English history. For every troop we lose today in Afghanistan we would have lost over 500 during the first half of the 20th Century and around 50 during the 19th Century.

Could this not be better explained by the spread of democracy, capitalism and international trade rather than nuclear weapons? Yes, it's fair to say that these things are what keeps world peace but people can only really think about what sort of government and economy they want when the fear of imminent invasion and/or death is alleviated  Do we really think post-War America, gripped by the Red Scare wouldn't have ended up at war with the Soviet Union and that we wouldn't have been devastated in the process? Nuclear deterrence is the umbrella under which prosperity and liberty has flourished.

It's not the Cold War any more

Perhaps we could unilaterally disarm today without there being any negative consequences. We could set the example for a nuclear-free world. Wouldn't that be nice? Unfortunately, weapons of mass destruction, whether nuclear, biological or chemical are an inevitability. The comparative advantage of holding them is simply too great for them not to be invented time and time again. If nuclear hadn't been an practical option then we'd likely be in an identical position but due to biological or chemical weapons.

And indeed, do we even have the right to tell other countries they shouldn't be allowed to guarantee the safety of their citizens through the ultimate defence? It is simply unfortunate that the strongest deterrent is the potential to utter destroy anyone who would become your enemy. However much Iran getting the bomb in in opposition to our foreign policy objectives, we all know in our heart-of-hearts that they do so primarily out of terror for Israel and the West.

There is also this strange argument that goes round that it's a waste to "buy things we'll never use." Those who argue this then surely do not accept the concept of deterrence at all, whether conventional or nuclear. Pretty much all British military spending is aimed to be a deterrent; it's incredibly unlikely we'll ever need 160 Eurofighter Typhoons but we purchased them "just in case" or more importantly to deter foreign powers from any negative actions. It's also a misnomer to say that we don't use our nuclear deterrent; the system is in constant use. Only if we suffer from a nuclear attack or invasion then the policy becomes a waste.

The only argument I buy against retaining nuclear weapons is an ideological one. As a liberal, I absolutely support people's free will. There is a reasonable logic that nuclear deterrence forces peace on to a world that otherwise might not want it by making the alternative unpalatable. Really we need to weigh up which is the bigger breach of liberties; a benign deterrent or the constant risk of war and the totalitarianism that follows.

What are our options?

So, if we're settled that it's worth retaining a nuclear deterrent then we should move on to discussing what form it should take.  First of all, let's talk about what Trident actually is. Trident is an American made intercontinental ballistic missile, tipped with a British made nuclear warhead, launched from a British made submarine.

The first of these submarines was launched in 1992 and has a 25-30 year lifespan and therefore will need to be replaced by 2022. This is not though what people mean when they talk about renewing Trident, they actually are questioning whether we should replace the Vanguard-class submarines that carry Trident or not. The actual Trident SLBMs are good until 2042 and will probably still be usable after then.

Those who want talk about replacing Trident, for whatever reason, sometimes suggest we should develop a new missile to be attached to our Typhoon and/or Tornado jets. This appears to be a somewhat foolish suggestion since it would mean discarding the Trident missiles which are viable for another 30+ years and additionally it would reduce our nuclear range to some 2,500 miles which basically only covers all of our European allies and Moscow. Obviously, we could refuel our planes mid-air but needing the bulk of your military infrastructure to be intact rather detracts from the desired effect.

Others seem to want us to scrap the Trident missiles and invest in our own land-based ICBM system. I've never really understood this proposal at all, it largely seems to revolve around not using "foreign" technology and creating more British jobs. Obviously as a classical liberal these ideas are quite alien to me and I'm not going to bother discussing them here. There are other problems though to us "going alone". A British made missile would most likely be ridiculously expensive to research, design, build and test and would probably never match, let alone exceed, the quality already found in the American Trident system. Trident has had 135 consecutive successful tests over the past 23 years; what other weapon system in history can boast that sort of success rate?

The only suggestion which is even slightly viable is that of simply installing our existing Trident missiles in military bases in the UK. This isn't an awful idea as they have a 7,000 mile range and therefore would cover most of the world (ironically, one of the five or so countries they couldn't hit is Argentina, the closest thing we have to an enemy). We do have plenty of overseas bases in which we could extend our coverage though so it was universal but do we really want to stick nukes on the Falklands or other Southern Atlantic/Pacific islands? Not only would this be unwise due to the vulnerability to foreign/terrorist attack of these areas but it would be in breach of various nuclear non-proliferation treaties that we've already signed.

What's so good about Trident?

The problem with all the above suggestions is that a foreign power might well figure out where we were keeping our warheads and neutralise them with either a conventional or nuclear attack. It might seem incredibly unlikely that anyone who chose to make an enemy of us would be able to take care of all our nukes before we could launch them and you are correct to think that but it misses two fundamental points.

Firstly, those of us who don't ever actually want to see another atomic bomb used in anger would want to give a British Prime Minister the time and space needed to make this incredibly difficult decision. Knowing your retaliatory option is vulnerable to destruction at any time could well lead to hasty and regrettable decisions. Secondly, the weaker your nuclear defence the more likely an enemy is to think it can be taken care of and therefore the higher the chance is that it will have to be used.

Let's remember, the objective is to never use our deterrent, obviously at the point we did the deterrent would become an actual weapon and the policy will have failed. It may seem like a perverse idea but the intention of us developing nuclear weapons is not to actually possess them as such, possessing them is merely the most convincing way of making somebody else think we have them and deterring them even considering the possibility of an attack.

How does our current system meet these stated requirements? We maintain a presence always at sea, in a submarine that's near impossible to detect. This gives us a clear option of "Second Strike" and therefore greatly increases the deterrent effect. There is a dangerous weakness in the current arrangements though; if the submarine currently on patrol is incapacitated for some reason then we're effectively temporarily vulnerable, although only as vulnerable as if we didn't have an underwater capacity to start with.

So why is anyone against Trident?

There's only two real groups who are strongly opposed to Trident; liberals and the military. Many liberals these days argue for maintaining a deterrent but not Trident, citing firstly its cost and secondly that our agenda has changed. Cost would would be a fine argument if Trident was expensive but it's not. The total amount we spend runs to some £3bn/year or about 0.2% of GDP. Yes, that money could be spent elsewhere but why not hypothetically cut it from the actual military budget? Pound for pound Trident keeps us much safer than the conventional military ever could. We'll spend some £100bn over the next 30 years on Trident but the total bill for the conventional military will cost us well in excess of £1tn (or roughly the same as our current total debt). If we wanted to cut military expenditure without affecting troops in Afghanistan, etc. we could do so by mothballing/reselling the bulk of our Eurofighters which will almost certainly never see real combat.

I believe it's fair to say that most liberals who want a "cheaper alternative" really don't want us to have a genuine deterrent at all and whilst I personally sympathise with their position recent history suggests this might be a little hasty. If you don't believe in a nuclear deterrent say so, don't try to sideline and weaken our existing deterrent.

The other group who come out opposed to Trident are the military themselves. For some reason we always seem to listen to our military commanders on policy matters but let's remember that they are there to manage defence in case of an attack, not prevent that attack ever occurring  After all, the military and our nuclear deterrent are in direct competition; a successful nuclear policy leads to a fall in their spending. Military chiefs are responsible foremost for ensuring the budgets for their own departments and ensuring that their subordinates get to do the one thing in life that they signed up to do; fight wars.

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Why the Liberal Democrats are now the only home for libertarians

The Liberal Democrats are now the only home for libertarians interested in making a real difference in British politics. A lot of people will laugh upon hearing this and they're right that we're certainly not a party that can claim to be majority libertarian. We are a respectful party though, both of the democratic process and freedom of expression.

Here are some quick points to ponder:
  • We don't all wear sandals. We have an image as a centre-left party and it's fair to say we do have a fair amount of lefties, what party doesn't? We do though have a lot more centrist and centre-righters than you'd think. The vast bulk of the party support free markets as the best means to freeing individuals but a lot rightly have concerns about the unfair power exercised by vested interests. In this way the party as a whole shares one of the main libertarian stances, they simply word it differently.
  • We believe in fairness, even when it hurts the party politically. We don't cancel elections because the wrong person wins, we don't fire people for being "hideously off-message". Most of our party spends 80% of the time being off message.
  • We understand we have factions; it actually strengthens us. We were created as an alliance, we can't pretend we all have the same views, we often radically disagree. Other parties try their hardest to hide their factions and divisions, we're proud of our individuality. Our groups such as Social Liberal Forum and Liberal Reform even put forward their own policies to conference. We disagree and squabble and occasionally throw our toys out of the pram but we largely remain respectful to each other and accept that we all have the same aims but simply differ over how to achieve them.
  • We actively welcome differing views. A lot of people, myself included, are suggesting some UKIPpers moving on might want to consider the Lib Dems. Most of us don't say this for political point-scoring, so we can parade around the newest defectors from the other side, we say it because we genuinely want smart, passionate people who hold strong beliefs such as Olly, et al to contribute to our party. Yes, he'd cause chaos and controversy and yes a lot of people would disagree with him but that doesn't scare us, unlike the other authoritarian parties who constantly have to be in control of their message even to the detriment of their members.
  • We know how to compromise and do deals. Under first past the post there will never be a significant libertarian party in the UK. Therefore a libertarian holding party membership will always be finding the most suitable compromise. Many have thought over the past eighteen months that UKIP might be the best option due to various noises they've made to appeal to libertarians; we've all seen tonight that they cannot be trusted in this regard.
  • People's economic views are more malleable than their social views. As people get older they tend to mature and increasingly reject the state from interfering in the economy. Unfortunately, they also seem to become more authoritarian. Do you think you can really convince a bigot to become a liberal? On the other hand socialists become staunch capitalists every day. A lot of Lib Dems will happily acknowledge economics isn't their bag; they're social liberals through and through and simply pragmatic about how to best achieve results.
  • We're open minded. Bring the evidence and we'll listen. Share your ideas; you might be surprised at the response. Most Lib Dems don't understand libertarianism, they've often never heard a good explanation from an genuine supporter. A lot of us have seen how University politics teaching is heavily biased towards the lecturer's (often left-wing) views. Come and make the case and help us change for the better.
  • We represent our members. Bring 50,000 libertarians to the Lib Dems and we'll become libertarian overnight. Realistically that isn't going to happen but our party works from the bottom-up. If the members come and stay they will have a say and be able to influence the party's direction.
  • David Laws is in charge of our 2015 manifesto. This is a guy who wants to lop another 7+% off of the state. Yes, UKIP say they want the state even smaller but we actually have to make policies we might one day implement in coalition.
  • We're the only party making real tax reductions. We all know the 50% policy is a headline, not a real tax policy. It is our policy that is actually cutting tax for ordinary people and yes we want to go further and take all minimum wage workers out of all direct taxation.
So, why not give it a go? I know a lot of you are former Tories and will consider returning but do you really want to jump from one bunch of control freaks to another on the vague hope that they'll actually reduce the state at some unspecified stage in the future?

Thursday, 3 January 2013

Is greater investment in education a good idea?

This is partially a reply to my interpretation of Education and the Economy: debunking the philistine myth by Tom Burkard


I've recently seen the argument made that there is little correlation between a high-quality education system and a successful economy. This same argument seems to infer that since you can't teach the exact skill-sets required for a "21st century job" that you should simply reject formalised learning altogether. It also appears to imply that innovation and success are ingrained at birth and that therefore the sensible way to manage an economy is to rely on poaching natural talent from abroad by having the lowest taxation.

Getting into a discussion regarding nature and nurture is way beyond the scope of this post but I find it hard to believe that anyone could seriously accept that the reason rich parents generally have successful children is primarily genetic and nothing at all to do with superior upbringing, education and opportunity.

Whilst it is true that you could create a relatively well-off economy by abandoning state-funded education altogether and instead focusing on free-movement and minimal taxation, this would simply be to profit from other peoples' educational investments; somewhere down the line somebody must raise children and the real discussion we should be having is how to best achieve that.


There is a general perception that Britain's independent schools are a run-away success whilst confidence in the state sector is shaky at best. Although this could well be a false perception and, of course, there are both excellent state schools and terrible independent schools, all empirical evidence reinforces the accuracy of the public's view, whether based around examination results, value-added, progression rates to further/higher education or eventual employment/earnings. In addition to this most people who have the means choose to send their children to independent schools in the UK, even from countries that are viewed as having better state systems than our own.

Overall, I think it's fair to say that the independent educational sector offers something which if it could be successfully replicated in the state sector would add great value to our economy. The next challenge is isolating what is so special about privately-run schools. We can do this by contrasting them to the less successful state sector; state schools are both state-controlled and state-funded.

Independent schools have much greater freedom to teach what they feel is best, using the methods they think are best. Any reader who accepts that different children have different needs will most likely also accept that centralised policy cannot sufficiently cater for these needs, and that only parents can make the best decisions about what type of schooling is best for their individual child. Although there is little firm evidence on the benefits of deregulation, it appears to provide a successful foundation not only for our privately-run schools but also our world-renowned Universities.


The other major difference is funding. The government spends between £5000 and £6000 per annum on each child educated in a state-funded school. In contrast, average day school rates in the independent sector are £11500, roughly twice those in the state sector. You may well ask yourself what exactly privately-run schools do with this money and how it's translated into additional benefits for their pupils. Well, two areas spring to mind; smaller class sizes and superior extra-curricular activities.

It is right to say that we shouldn't expect schools to teach incredibly job-specific skills or knowledge; this is an approach that inevitably ends up teaching things that are largely irrelevant and outdated by the time they come to be used. It would be hard to argue though that a focus on more basic reusable skills would not pay off in the long run. It's all very well to say somebody should have budgeting skills before they leave school but a person with poor numeracy will never be able to budget well whilst an individual with good numeracy will pick it up naturally with ease.

Pretty much all businesses want well-rounded individuals who can communicate effectively, work well in a team or alone, who can organise themselves and can think originally and who are confident in their abilities and open about their weaknesses. It is correct that you can’t purely "teach" these skills and that you can’t simply set them as homework and then grade them against a mark scheme. This is where the importance of the relationship between the teacher and the student comes into play and where small class sizes show their real benefit.

We all seem to want teachers to have a parent-like relationship with our children and yet how good would we be as parents to thirty-two children of our own? It is a testament to the profession that they can even remember the names of the 300+ children that they teach let alone develop personal bonds with each and every one of them and understand their individual needs. As for extra-curricular activities, whilst it may not seem obvious how they contribute to the economy, go back and look at the list of skills that employers want and then think of a list of activities provided by schools. I'm sure you'll find that the bulk assist development of many of the most critical skills.


Surely then it makes sense to simply decrease the statutory maximum class size? I don't think so; I simply don't think it's necessary. Small class sizes aren't mandated for the independent sector, there's no need; the market dictates. The existing maximum class size of thirty-two is often disregarded by academies, they simply rename classes to something different to get round it.

Perhaps small class sizes aren't actually the answer, maybe the private sector is wrong, who am I to say? I can be sure though that if we liberalise the education sector and give teachers the freedom to offer their talents whilst providing parents with a diverse market of schools then we will begin to replicate the excellence found in the private sector.

So, do we actually need to invest more in education? The short answer is no, we don't need to but you will not mirror private provision simply by copying their techniques without their funding. If it was only regulation holding back the state sector then you would already see private schools charging similar amounts to the £6000 that the state invests per child (or even less) but this simply does not happen. It's not possible to offer class sizes of less than twenty without funding closer to £8000 per year.


Can we actually afford it though? Well, we'd need another £20bn per year or so to fund this change. We currently spend roughly £80bn per year on benefits primarily targeted at the ill-educated. Of course this is a long term investment, it wouldn't pay for itself over-night but there's little doubt it'd be profitable eventually through less benefits and increased tax revenues.

It doesn't even have to be tax-payer funded, although I personally favour increased educational funding for all. If we introduced a system of school vouchers, allowing schools to charge what they liked and parents to freely top-up then large parts of the British population would be able to provide their children with a private-level education, primarily at the taxpayer's expense.