The Ultimate Insurance

6 December 2006

So here we have it: the government’s white paper on the renewal of Britain’s nuclear deterrent. Tony Blair’s related statement to The Commons outlines the reasons for the government’s wanting to renew the UK’s deterrent capabilities. It’s worth reprinting the core argument here:

So, inexorably, we return to the central judgment: maintain our independent nuclear deterrent or not? It is written as a fact by many that there is no possibility of nuclear confrontation with any major nuclear power. Except that it isn’t a fact. Like everything else germane to this judgment, it is a prediction. It is probably right. But certain? No, we can’t say that.

The new dimension is undoubtedly the desire by states, highly dubious in their intentions, like North Korea and Iran, to pursue nuclear weapons capability. Fortunately, Libya has given up its WMD ambitions and has played a positive role internationally; the notorious network of A Q Khan, the former Pakistani nuclear physicist has been shut down. But proliferation remains a real problem.

The notion of unstable, usually deeply repressive and anti-democratic states, in some cases profoundly inimical to our way of life, having a nuclear capability, is a distinct and novel reason for Britain not to give up its capacity to deter.

It is not utterly fanciful either to imagine states sponsoring nuclear terrorism from their soil. We know this global terrorism seeks chemical, biological and nuclear devices. It is not impossible to contemplate a rogue government helping such an acquisition. It is true that our deterrent would not deter or prevent terrorists. But it is bound to have an impact on governments that might sponsor them.

Then there is the argument, attractive to all of us who believe in the power of countries to lead by example, as we seek to do in climate change and did in debt relief, that Britain giving up its deterrent, would encourage others in the same direction. Unfortunately there is no evidence that any major nuclear power would follow such an example – on the contrary. And, as for the new, would-be nuclear powers, it really would be naïve to think that they would be influenced by a purely British decision. More likely, they would construe it as weakness.

Finally, there is one other argument: that we shelter under the nuclear deterrent of America.

Our co-operation with America is rightly very close. But close as it is, the independent nature of the British deterrent is again an additional insurance against circumstances where we are threatened but America is not. These circumstances are also highly unlikely but I am unwilling to say they are non-existent.

In the end, therefore, we come back to the same judgment. Anyone can say that the prospect of Britain facing a threat in which our nuclear deterrent is relevant, is highly improbable. No-one can say it is impossible. In the early 21st century, the world may have changed beyond recognition, since the decision taken by the Atlee Government over half a century ago. But it is precisely because we could not have recognised then, the world we live in now, that it would not be wise to predict the unpredictable in the times to come. That is the judgment we have come to. We have done so according to what we think is in the long-term strategic interests of our nation and its security and I commend it to the House.

There’s a lot to say about this, but I shall save it for another post. I think it may be worth posing a question or two, though: how might we, Tony, come to a point where Britain ‘[faces] a threat in which our nuclear deterrent is relevant’? What would make us the target of such violence?

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UK Independence

1 December 2006

A terrible letter to the Independent earlier this week complained about the awesome destructive capabilities of Trident.  The author could only assume that Trident was a dreadful weapon of revenge, but so dreadful that no one would be able to assume the moral burden of unleashing it.  Perfectly correct points – but the letter put them in the wrong part of the argument.  A better (pro-Trident) letter pointed out two days later that the whole point of Trident is that it is dreadful.  It’s not meant to be used: it’s meant to deter people from attacking us in fear that it should be used.  The active part of Trident is the fear. This correspondent concluded that the UK would be unwise to give up its weapon of fear in such an uncertain world climate.

This might be a good point if we could somehow abstract the UK from the rest of the world, if all the uncertainty in the world could be shown to be utterly independent of our own actions, while still being something that we should guard against.  But there is no such independence.  Our actions are partial causes of the global climate, and our actions can contribute to its transformation.  The hope is that by giving up Trident we might persuade some other nuclear-seekers to give up likewise.  Whereas if we keep it we in effect say to the rest of the world that we’re looking for trouble; trouble which will – if the nuclear non-proliferation treaty breaks down entirely – not be so long in coming. 

Ben Young


Trident versus Foxes

17 November 2006

The two most popular petitions on the new “petition the Prime Minister” website are to reverse the fox hunting ban, and not to replace Trident.  Right now, the anti-fox lobby has four times as much support as the anti-nuke lobby, but one thousand people signed the anti-Trident petition in the first 24 hours, so this is going to change.

I put up the anti-Trident petition, and it is based on the ideas we’ve explored in this blog.  I don’t agree with the argument that Trident should be abandoned because the money will better be used for development: this is a side track.  And I reject arguments that it should be got rid of because it is secretly being controlled by the US: even if this was true (and I don’t think it is), it would be at best irrelevant.  I am not even sure about arguments that Trident should be got rid of because it is immoral: it is arguable that Trident is just a tool, and that a tool has no intrinsic moral properties; for another, it seems possible that the moral course of action can lead to a situation which is worse for all.  Might it be that by rejecting Trident the UK would sacrifice actual security for the sake of the moral high ground?  Actually, I don’t think this is the case – but the UK would have to do more than just get rid of Trident: we would have to get rid of it, and then proselytise widely for a nuclear weapons-free world.

Ultimately, I think that by getting rid of Trident we will make the world a safer place.  For the world does not see the UK the way we see ourselves.  On the whole, UK citizens think the UK is essentially responsible, moral and pursuing the greater good.  Others look at our weapons, our support for the Iraq war, our luxury and over-development, and think otherwise; some arm themselves in fear of us.  In fact, looks like a new nuclear arms race has begun. 

I want the UK to live up to the ideals that I have of it.  I think that we are responsible and moral and I do basically have faith in the way our democracy works – bruised faith, right enough, but still there.  I think we can prove this to the world: we can get rid of Trident, and then – as smug as we like – become world ambassadors for the non-proliferation treaty. 

If you agree, please sign the petition!

And if you don’t agree, go ahead and sign the counter petition!

Ben Young


Scrap Trident and…

7 November 2006

Previous posts and comments have already flagged up the various things that might benefit from extra funding were the money ear-marked for renewing Trident rerouted. We’ve already heard about the ‘scrap-Trident-and-eliminate-poverty’ lobby and the ‘scrap-Trident-and-improve-security-intelligence’ argument. Here’s a new one, though: scrap-Trident-and-save-the-environment.

Apparently, there’s an uncanny equivalence between the amount it will cost to renew then maintain Trident for 30 years (according to the Liberal Democrats) and the amount it would cost to guarantee reduction of carbon emissions to acceptable levels by 2030 (according to various scientists and industry experts). And £76bn is the magic number. Some might add that there’s an uncanny equivalence between working towards peace by maintaining nuclear weapons and working towards sustainable development by maintaining economic growth. But those people are far too cynical.


A new member of the nuclear club

9 October 2006

In case you’ve missed it, North Korea has gone nuclear. So what does this mean for the renewal of Britain’s nuclear deterrent? The government is being careful not to preempt its white paper on Trident’s renewal to be released later this year; from this morning’s press briefing:

“Asked if [North Korea’s actions] made the case for Trident more strong, the PMOS [Prime Minister’s Official Spokesman] replied that in terms of the arguments over our nuclear deterrents, and the case for nuclear deterrents, the time to do that would be whenever the exhaustive process of analysis was completed.”

Of course, some will maintain that a ‘rogue’ nuclear state like North Korea presents a threat to our security and only a nuclear defence system will deter such an attack. Others will claim that *any* nation, nuclear or otherwise, is at danger from a rogue nuclear state. But of course North Korea claims to be pursuing peace, saying that its newly-realised nuclear dream “…will contribute to defending the peace and stability on the Korean peninsula and in the area around it”.

I’m not sure that any peace worthy of the name can be defended with nuclear arms. Maybe a precarious stability can be maintained as more and more countries go nuclear, but is that really all we can hope for?


Where the parties stand on the Trident debate

25 September 2006

So here’s a quick capsule review of the official policy positions of the main political parties. In no particular order:

Conservatives

David Cameron’s newly be-logoed Tory party are “committed to replacing” the UK’s nuclear deterrent. More information here on their national security policy pages.

Labour

Officially Labour are “committed to retaining the independent nuclear deterrent” (2005 manifesto). However there is to be a government white paper on the future of Britain’s nuclear deterrent to be published later this year. It’s pretty much guaranteed that there’ll be a debate and vote in the House of Commons on the issue. But then, given the accusations that Labour won’t even countenance a debate on the issue at its annual conference, I’m not holding my breath for an open debate and a free vote in the Commons.

Liberal Democrats

According to their 2005 manifesto, the Lib Dems “… will press for a new round of multilateral arms reduction talks, retaining the UK’s current minimum nuclear deterrent for the foreseeable future, until sufficient progress has been made towards the global elimination of such weapons.” Following the Labour government’s announcement that the future of the UK’s nuclear defence system will be decided this year, the Lib Dems are undertaking a consultation on the issue. If only those pesky kids in government would just slow down so they could catch the heck up.

The Greens

Unsurprisingly the Scottish Green Party’s 2005 manifesto commitment is to “decommission all the UK’s nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction.” Fairly unambiguous that, then.

SNP

The Scottish National Party also has an anti-nuclear-defence policy: “The SNP reaffirms that no nuclear weapons will be based on independent Scottish soil. On Independence we will negotiate the safe removal of Trident from Scotland”.

SSP

And for the record, the Scottish Socialist Party opposes “the madness of nuclear weapons”.

Have I missed anyone?


Jack McConnell’s views on Trident replacement

15 September 2006

As the Long Walk for Peace set off from the Faslane Naval base (home of the Trident nuclear weapons system), Scotland’s First Minister Jack McConnell engaged in an impromptu debate on Trident replacement with the SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon. 

Given McConnell’s background (Scottish, for example), and in the light of his choice of phrases at First Minister’s Question time, there doesn’t seem to be much doubt that McConnell is personally against Trident replacement; but naturally he’s restricted in what he can say as head of the Scottish Labour party. 

His view is that there should be a public debate, and that there are three options of which only two are viable: (1) keep Trident; (2) use the possibility that the UK might not replace Trident as a bargaining tool in persuading eg. Iran not to pursue a nuclear weapons programme; (3) just not replace Trident.  He called the third option “irresponsible and pre-emptive”, and attacked the SNP for countenancing giving up something for nothing.  He seemed to prefer option (2), which earned him a predictable attack from the Scotsman newspaper which found someone in Westminster who was willing to insult McConnell off the record, calling his second option “stupid” and “completely ridiculous”.

In fact, it is not stupid or completely ridiculous.  As Julian Lewis argues, the only rational reason to possess nuclear arms is to dissuade others from attacking one with nuclear force; if Britain had no nuclear weapons, Iran (say) would feel marginally less threatened and would be marginally less likely to pursue weapons development (if it actually is).

McConnell’s idea is not ridiculous, but still there are some problems with it.  For one thing, as any fule no, the UK’s nuclear weapons are only for defence, so Iran ought not to feel threatened by us in the first place.  Sadly, though, many people have difficulty telling the UK’s foreign policy apart from the US’ (a point lamented by Jimmy Carter the other night), and, since the US apparently now countenances premptive strikes, some might need an actual gesture of disarmament to convince them of the UK’s peaceful intent.

It might also be objected that McConnell overstates the UK’s significance in the world.  Julian Lewis is probably right that our not replacing Trident would not directly lead anyone else to curb their nuclear ambitions.  However, there could be an indirect benefit: by dropping its nuclear weapons, the UK would distance itself from US foreign policy, and enter into the club of middle powers which are allies of the US while being able to criticise it where necessary.  This would be a small but important step towards creating a more balanced distribution of power in the world.

This is a benefit which accrues to the UK whether or not it explictly uses non-replacement as a chip in negotiations with others.  There is, then, no scenario in which the UK gives up something and gets nothing in return, and so McConnell’s options (2) and (3) amount to the same thing.  So thus I think he, too, is anti-Trident. 

Is anyone in power REALLY in favour of it?