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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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?


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’.


Trident must not be deleted

27 August 2006

The one powerful argument in favour of keeping Trident runs something like this:

Trident deters attacks on the UK which are aimed at destroying the UK entirely; it is worth defending ourself against this possibility: therefore we should keep Trident.

Trident is not meant to deter conventional weapons attacks, because conventional attackers are aware that the UK cannot – for moral, practical and legal reasons – make a nuclear attack in response. (And because the attacker may present no clear target.)

It seems to me that the decision on whether to replace Trident turns on very difficult factual questions about whether such an attack is ever likely to happen, and on weighing the risk against the costs of insuring against it.

But if this is right, then what is the point of a public debate? The call to replace it can only be made by professors of international relations, etc.

Incidentally, this observation makes John Redwood MP’s response to a constituent seem quite even- handed. Redwood says he will study the evidence before coming to a decision; whereas the Conservative Party’s defence policy working group has (like the Labour Party) managed to intuit that the evidence will tell in favour of replacement. Perhaps they are both anticipating an attack by an army of Cybermen.

Incidentally, MEDACT has a useful summary article on the Trident replacement debate.