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?


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


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.