When I was about 13 years old I had one of the most impressionable experiences of my childhood when I explored Faslane Submarine Base on the Firth of Clyde. I and a small group of Summer Campers spent the afternoon being shown around the base, and being taken out for rides on the speedboats which patrolled the Gare Loch. The particular stand out of the trip was the tour of the Polaris Submarine, complete with visit to the nuclear missile launch chamber. CND Youth Camp it was not.
Born in the late 70s, I’m from a generation that, in our youth, knew no other normality than the Cold War and everything that came with it: When the Wind Blows, The A-Team, Rambo, Russian villains in the movies, the Hippy Peace Camp outside Faslane we passed every summer on our way to our own Camp and, of course, the looming shadow of Mutually Assured Destruction. I have vivid memories of talking with my sister and our friends as a very young boy – no more than 8 years old – about what would happen to us in the event of a nuclear war. What would our parents do (as if it would matter)? What would become of us (we always assumed that we would survive)? So, standing in that launch chamber several years later, I was particularly affected.
It’s strange to think of that time now, not so much about the details of the day at Faslane, as the inherent feeling – no matter how remote – of dread that we all carried around in the back of our subconscious. Today I think that we often forget the relief and the release that the lifting of that ever-present threat gave to the world as a whole, even if only for the decade before Nuclear War was replaced in the popular consciousness by Al-Qaeda and the ‘War on Terror’ (that supremely ironic epithet).
So as we move towards the 2016 Parliamentary vote on whether the successor of Polaris, Trident, will itself be replaced, I find myself returning to those memories as a spur to remember the reality of a world order premised on the destructive power of nuclear weapons. And I find myself asking, what is Britain doing with a Nuclear Deterrent in the modern world? In particular, why are we undertaking to spend around £100 billion over the next forty years to build and maintain a replacement to Trident?
To be clear: I don’t believe in unilateral nuclear disarmament. But I do believe that Britain could lead the world on multi-lateral nuclear disarmament, and that renewing Trident would be a mistake. Here’s why.
Historically, Britain developed the H-bomb in order to keep up with the threat posed by Soviet Russia from 1945 on. And you can see the logic. There was a huge degree of uncertainty about Stalin’s intentions towards the Capitalist West and the USSR already had the Bomb. The knowledge of just how horrific Nagasaki and Hiroshima had been was not yet the stuff of high school History text books. It was a different time altogether.
But we’re not fighting the Cold War in 2016.
So are the other nuclear powers threatening us? Realistically, no. We have a good relationship with China, India, and Pakistan. Iran is finally coming in from the cold, and has neither nuclear weapons nor a delivery system. North Korea, despite all its rhetoric, has no reliable delivery system: what military nuclear infrastructure it does have could be dealt with using conventional weapons.Is Israel really a nuclear threat to the UK? Quite.
The sticking point often presented by those who are pro-Trident renewal is Russia. Yet even Russia’s aggressive foreign policy, led by their bellicose President, is not enough to justify committing the UK to another 40 years of nuclear deterrence: Putin cannot be in power forever; diplomacy has been massively under-used (both with regard to Russia and to multi-lateral nuclear disarmament); the all-singing & dancing Trident submarine is not the only nuclear weapons delivery system option; it is strong and flexible conventional armed forces and alliances which we really rely upon for our territorial defence in Europe.
Perhaps caution alone provides a rational for the UK to remain nuclear? We don’t know what we don’t know, after all. There is the potential for new, rogue nuclear states to emerge in the future. Yet all countries are equally threatened by the presence of nuclear weapons. The only solution to this fear would be nuclear proliferation, and no-one wants that.
And by this insurance-policy rationale you can simply make up Defence strategy on the hoof. We don’t know for sure that the plot to the film Independence Day won’t one day come true. Perhaps our Defence Policy should include investing in giant lasers which point out into deep space as a deterrence against Martian invasion.
It may well be that rogue elements obtain a nuclear weapon. But will the knowledge that we have three nuclear missile-equipped submarines cruising silently somewhere under the waves of the earth’s oceans really stop Islamic State dreaming of planting a nuclear-equipped car bomb in a major British city? No, Britain’s enemies are the type of guys who are more likely to plant a nail bomb in a crowded pub than to preside over a modern Cuban Missile Crisis.
So, the first reason not to replace Trident is that it’s ineffective in terms of our defence. Warfare nowadays tends to be – in the jargon of the military – asymmetric. Mutually Assured Destruction only worked because the destruction was assured. Mutually.
The second reason not to replace Trident is that it’s immorally-expensive in a time when we are being told that austerity requires Fire Fighters to be on active duty until they are 60 years old and when Junior Doctors, Teachers and other public servants are facing swinging cuts to their pay and conditions. As George Osborne continues his drive to reduce spending and the Local Government budget is slashed (particularly Labour-run Councils), the £100 billion set to be spent on Trident looms large. To put this in perspective, the entire Health Care budget for 2015-16 is £134 billion: the ultimate cost of Trident is expected to be more than the total Defence, Police, Transport, Agriculture and Secondary School budgets for this year.
The third reason to scrap Trident inverts one of the most frequent arguments given in its support: our Place in the World. Britain’s membership of the exclusive Nuclear Club is often described as a fact which gives us credibility – like a Pall Mall Gentleman’s Club on steroids. We are a nation that means business, it’s implied; take us seriously. But there’s another way to look at our membership, and that is the example that we’re setting to the rest of the World.
When the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was signed by the British Government in 1968, we and the other signatories agreed to three key principles. First, we agreed that all signatories are entitled to civilian nuclear energy. Second, we agreed that those without the bomb should not try to get it, and third we agreed that countries with the bomb would negotiate the elimination of all nukes. Yet in reality we have not prioritised multi-lateral nuclear disarmament, and we’re about to update and extend our capacity to initiate a nuclear attack. What is the moral or practical basis for our protestations against North Korea’s nascent nuclear programme? Our bad example of de-nuclearizing nimbyism is exactly the same as the Iranian and North Korean case for the defence.
But the final reason to scrap the Trident replacement project is ultimately the strongest, putting all of the others in the nuclear winter of shades. This is the moral case against the use of nuclear weapons. Nukes are a quite appalling evil in our world, on a scale that is off the chart. In a typically-depressing way, they represent the apogee of humanity’s squandering of the good that is in us: our wealth, intelligence, technological creativity and collaborative spirit. When we have wealth, we tend to hoard it. When we have intelligence our default position is to use it to give ourselves a selfish advantage. When we develop technology we often use it to become lazy. Despite our capacity for collaboration, again and again we lionise the individual at the expense of the communal. And when we discover phenomenal energy, we use it to create the most destructive power on earth. A power that kills men, women, children and the environment indiscriminately, both in a split second, and for decades afterwards.
It’s a power that we and the world could well do without.