By Daniel Margrain
Monday evenings vote by the UK parliament to renew the Trident nuclear weapons programme which is planned to begin in the early 2030s at an estimated cost of £205 billion, speaks volumes about the malaise at the heart of British parliamentary democracy. The disconnect between Labour members and the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) is, in part, indicative of this broader schism in liberal social democracy more generally.
This is highlighted, for example, by the fact that the democratically-elected leader of the Labour party, Jeremy Corbyn, who commands a 20 point lead over his rival, Owen Smith in the renewed challenge to his leadership set for September, voted against the renewal of Trident, while 60 per cent of Labour MPs, the vast majority of whom are opposed to Corbyn’s leadership, voted in favour.
The replacement of the current stock of nuclear submarines is predicated on the 2006 White Paper, The Future of the United Kingdom’s Nuclear Deterrent, which asserts that the UK needs nuclear weapons in order:
“to deter and prevent nuclear blackmail and acts of aggression against our vital interests that cannot be countered by other means.”
The assumed logic underpinning this reasoning is that nuclear weapons provide states with the protection they need against potential adversaries. On the basis of this reasoning, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that theoretically and, as an issue of consistency, every state should be allowed to obtain nuclear weapons. But contrary to state propaganda, this eventuality will inevitably make the world less, not more, safe. As Caroline Lucas eloquently and succinctly put it when she addressed PM, Theresa May, during the parliamentary debate:
“If keeping and renewing our nuclear weapons is so vital to our security and safety, does she accept the logic of that position must be that every other single country must seek to acquire nuclear weapons? And does she really think that the world would be a safer place if it did? Our weapons are driving proliferation, not the opposite.”
One only needs to look at the example of Iraq, which was attacked on the basis that Saddam was said to have had in his possession a functioning weapons programme that could be used to attack Britain within 45 minutes, in order to underline the truth of Lucas’ argument.
Secondly, both the Conservative and New Labour establishments’ claim that the Trident system is an ‘independent’ nuclear deterrent doesn’t stand up to scrutiny either. The reality is that Britain is currently only one among nine states in the world that does not possess an independent functional nuclear weapons system and the means to deliver it.
The notion then, that a U.S-supplied UK missile system is free to strike any target in the world is fanciful, particularly as its functionality is dependent upon the vagaries of US-UK relations at any given time. Of course, all of this is underscored by the fact that under the terms of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Britain has an obligation to disarm.
The third illustration why Trident renewal is unsound, relates to the nature of the threats societies’ face in the 21st century. The 2015 National Security Strategy sets out the tier-one threats faced by the UK. These are international terrorism, climate change and cyber-crime. The obvious reality is that nuclear weapons are not a deterrent against any of these threats. How is it the case that over 180 countries in the world don’t feel the need to acquire this ‘deterrent’?
As the governments own Strategic Defence Review suggests, the threat of nuclear war is rated a two-tier level risk below international terrorism, climate change and cyber crime. It’s precisely because we live in an uncertain world where more countries aspire to get nuclear weapons, that the opportunity for terrorists to get hold of nuclear material becomes greater. The fact that nuclear weapons make the world less safe is the central premise which determines an ongoing UN process involving some 130 countries who are engaged in discussions about banning nuclear weapons. Unsurprisingly, the UK government is not a party to these discussions.
The arguments for maintaining Trident fall like a house of cards whose foundations are built on sand. The theory that having nuclear weapons makes the country safer is an entirely unproven one, and nor can it be proven. In logic, one cannot prove a negative insofar that doing something causes something else not to happen. The reason why nuclear attacks haven’t happened since the U.S attack on Japan, may be the result of any number of factors, or simply may be due to exceptionally good fortune. Indeed, many military experts argue that nuclear weapons make the country less safe, primarily because it increases the likelihood of them being used.
Britain’s possession of nuclear weapons exacerbates uncertainties and leads to the very scenario it is designed to avoid. If Trident is so effective in protecting the British people, why is it also not the case for every other country in the world? How can the UK government possibly try to deny the right of other countries to acquire them under circumstances where the UK government upgrades its own nuclear weapons?
The one argument that the proponents of Trident renewal frequently cite is the supposed loss of jobs that would allegedly result from any decision to de-commission or not to renew Trident. But, as SNP MP Mhairi Black argued in an erudite and passionate speech to the House of Commons, there is no evidence to suggest, given any political will to examine likely alternative employment opportunities, that job losses would inevitably be the result in any decision not to renew.
The billions that the government is proposing to spend on Trident renewal could conceivably be spent on utilizing the skilled engineers, scientists and other workers elsewhere by investing in energy, engineering and other alternative specialist areas. In addition, greater sums could be invested in preventing climate change. This latter diversification alternative would, as Black emphazises, seem to be particularly pertinent given that climate change is a tier-one threat. The notion that the Trident renewal argument as a defence against a two-tier threat trumps the threat posed by climate change which is a tier-one threat, defies all logic. As Peter Hitchens put it:
“Trident is like spending all your money on insuring against alien abduction, so you can’t afford cover against fire and theft.”
Furthermore, the decision to renew is both counter-intuitive and counter-productive. This is because such a process, as Caroline Lucas contends:
“gives out an incredibly negative message to the rest of the world that if you want to be secure then you have to acquire nuclear weapons. To that extent this vote will drive nuclear proliferation.”
Britain’s nuclear weapons capability does nothing to tackle the real threats the country faces. Rather, it has more to do with augmenting the perception throughout the rest of the world that a faded imperial power is still a significant player on the world stage. Maintaining a nuclear ‘deterrent’ is, in other words, about sending a message to the rest of the world that the projection of power by any means is necessary. Central to maintaining this illusion, is the assurance that the UK secures its permanent member status on the UN Security Council. The Trident nuclear weapons programme serves no other purpose than to satisfy the ego of the British establishment and the propping up of the arms industry.
In the context of an era of welfare retrenchment and austerity, the public are constantly being told by politicians that ‘difficult decisions’ have to be made in terms of the ‘necessity’ to cut disability, unemployment benefits and pensions, while the spending of billions on Trident is essential for their safety and security. The conservative political commentator and television personality, Michael Portillo, manages to cut through the spin as the graphic below illustrates:
As Portillo correctly implies, spending obscene amounts on what are frankly useless, unnecessary and immoral weapons of mass destruction, is an indefensible act of self-serving and short-sighted political narcissism.