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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Charles Clarke’s advice for Blair

6 September 2006

It seems that democratic participation and debate are still valued by some in the Labour Party, if not Jack Straw. In a recent article for the New Statesman, Charles Clarke says:

“It is vital that our approach is systematic and thorough. Major policy issues, such as the place of nuclear energy in the drive to energy sustainability and the value to our overall security strategy of replacing Trident, need serious consideration. They cannot simply be dealt with as an aside at the CBI’s annual dinner or a half-sentence at the Guildhall. The country as a whole needs to see and understand the context and the options before such commitments are made that can otherwise seem to be delivered from on high without proper engagement by parliament and the country.”

Still, you have to wonder whether such calls for reasoned debate on important issues have any value when the media continue to allow themselves to be hijacked by petty wrangling within ‘Westminster Village’.


Jobs at Aldermaston

30 August 2006

Written evidence from the Ministry of Defence to the Defence Select Committee (published 17th Jan 2006) says that the current investment in the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) at Aldermaston is independent of the decision to replace Trident.

According to Annex C of this document:

“This additional investment at AWE is required to sustain the existing warhead stockpile in-service irrespective of decisions on any successor warhead. The investment will sustain core skills and facilities that could also be used in future to develop a successor but no decisions have yet been made either in principle or practice on this issue.” (para. 13)

So I still think/hope that this is a rare case of Mark Thomas being wrong.


UK Independence

17 August 2006

International Affairs (vol.82, no.4 July 2006) has published a collection of papers entitled “The future of United Kingdom nuclear weapons: shaping the debate”. Michael Quinlan’s paper in the collection surveys the arguments over replacement, concluding that there is no clear cut argument either way, and that the decision should turn on a detailed cost-benefit analysis – an analysis, however, which it is not currently possible to perform due to the dearth of information from the UK Government about what options are being considered.

Amongst other things, Quinlan discusses the claim that that the UK does not possess an independent nuclear deterrent because its weapons are essentially dependent on the US. He considers three ways in which this claim might be made out:

(1) it could be argued that the UK does not have an independent deterrent because the nuclear weapons are bought from, and serviced by, the US. The latter is true, but, he argues, it does not show that they are “dependent” in the relevant sense: if I buy a car from a Ford garage, and sign a service agreement with Ford, this does not make my use of the car dependent on Ford.

(2) it has been claimed that the UK’s weapons are operationally dependent on the US because they could not be launched without targetting information which can only be provided by the US. He says that the best available evidence is that this is not true (citing oral evidence given to the House of Commons Defence Committee, 28th March 2006, questions 152-160).

(3) it has been claimed that the UK’s weapons are politically dependent on the US since no UK government could act against the US’ wishes in using them. He rejects this, saying that there is no sanction that the US could employ to influence the UK’s decision on something as grave as the use of a nuclear weapon.

This third argument could be elaborated: if the claim is that the UK’s weapons are dependent on the US because the US might be able to stop the UK using a weapon when the UK wanted to, then this is not something that anti-Trident campaigners should be against! I would be quite happy if the US had this power over the UK! So the relevant claim must be that the US might be able to make the UK use a nuclear weapon against the wishes of the British government of the day. Quinlan can’t see any way in which this could happen.

Arguing against Trident on the basis that it is dependent on the US makes me uncomfortable. It reminds me of a mistake that some alterglobalisationists make when arguing against privatisation of public utilities: I’ve heard it implied that privatisation is bad solely because the company might fall into the ownership of a foreign national. This seems dangerously parochial; similarly, to object to Trident on the grounds that someone else apart from the UK might fire it seems to miss the point. We don’t want anyone to fire it!