Monday, 27 April 2015

Electing to renew

In the run up to the UK general election some noise was made about the renewing of the nation’s ‘independent nuclear deterrent’. Conservative Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, accused the Labour party of using the Trident replacement project as a bargaining chip with the SNP. Labour responded by saying they remained "committed to retaining an independent nuclear deterrent" but would be looking at "value for money".

The row, such as it was, almost immediately fizzled out. In an election which already feels like the most feeble and cynical of my lifetime, the mud-slinging about nuclear weapons was by far the most depressing development. There was no debate about the efficacy, meaning or morality of the UK’s nukes - just a little half-hearted point-scoring, and a desire to have a cheaper apocalypse solution.

Immigration and house prices dominate our election discussion. Strange, when one of those Trident missiles has the potential to end human civilization in an afternoon.

We should only maintain nuclear weapons if there is broad agreement based on an informed, inclusive debate. There are arguments for it: it could be said that nukes have helped put an end to the relentless cycle of state-on-state wars, and actually saved lives.

Still, it is fair enough to ask for some kind of debate considering that a replacement system will cost (very conservatively) £20bn. It is at least a little curious that both major parties plan to axe programmes that help people to pay for one that incinerates them.

Crucial to a successful debate would be agreement to frame the discussion in realistic, appropriate terms. Let’s not hide behind language like:

Independent nuclear deterrent.

Let’s split that phrase up:

How independent is it? If the missiles are American designed and built, and if Aldermaston, where we build the bombs, is privately managed by American firms Lockheed Martin and Jacobs Engineering, how can we claim to have ownership? At best it’s a kind of lease.

Nuclear deterrent – that is an awfully nice description for what is, let’s face it, a monstrous weapon of mass destruction. Trident is designed to indiscriminately kill hundreds of thousands of civilians and render large areas of the planet uninhabitable.

Further, any use of the weapon is almost guaranteed to create a panic in which a response by the USA, Russia, China, India, Pakistan or Israel would follow, setting off a chain reaction that ends our civilization.

If we are to have a useful debate shouldn't we drop the term ‘independent nuclear deterrent’ and replace it with the term ‘Doomsday Device'? It's a more accurate description.

Nuclear Blackmail

This is a post-Cold War construction which began to rear its head in the aftermath of 9/11, as people began to ask: what use is Trident against such an enemy?

The scenario, such as it is, goes that a ‘rogue’ nation like Iran threatens the UK with a nuclear weapon, and poor old nuke-free Blighty is compelled to do their evil bidding.

The idea is idiotic, and should be dismissed as irrelevant out of hand. It is particularly galling to hear the term used so often by politicians who either know better or are too plum stupid to question it.

No nation can threaten another with a nuclear weapon in isolation. The very nature of the Doomsday Device dictates that to threaten one country with it, no matter how relatively low the yield, is to threaten the entire world.

Playing fast and loose.

Defence secretaries love belting each other over the head with this phrase whenever the Doomsday Device is discussed – to consider reducing or scrapping Trident, they argue, is to ‘play fast and loose with this country’s defences’.

This is the most extraordinary claim when you consider the savage, poorly planned cuts which successive governments continue to make to armed forces personnel and equipment  – ie the stuff which we might actually use one day. We are currently planning to have our smallest standing army in centuries. Now that the nuclear deterrent is paid for out of the defence budget we can expect things to get considerably worse.

If we wish to be properly defended, switching Trident funding to improve our conventional kit would be a more practical use of the money.

A seat at the top table

This is the central fallacy of the deterrent. Newspapers will often talk about Trident giving us ‘a seat at the top table’. That is a say in world affairs, a seat on the UN Security Council etc. By virtue of what? The threat of our planet-killing wrath?

Britain’s Security Council seat, like our nuclear weapons, is a legacy of the settlement left by the Second World War. It was a time when the British Empire still existed, and we sought to cement a position as a reduced but still formidable global player.

That time has passed: Suez happened. Iraq happened.

Other nations like Brazil and India already have a better claim to a Security Council seat purely by virtue of demographics. Our possession of nuclear weapons will not prevent movement for change, if and when it comes.


You, me and every other taxpayer knows that nuclear weapons are morally indefensible. Yet we seem happy to pay for them. Can it really be that most of us are content ignoring the issue, thinking ‘better strong than weak, better status than change?’

We cannot shield our eyes and wave through a decision this big. If we discussed it even half as much as we do immigration, we’d soon recognise a far greater threat to our way of life than someone speaking Polish on a bus.

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