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

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Giving it up: The case of South Africa

10 October 2006

North Korea going nuclear should be an occasion to reflect that plenty of countries have given up the Bomb: South Africa, for example, had built six nuclear bombs under apartheid, and now has none.

Speaking on the BBC Word Service this lunchtime, Professor Renfrew Christie (University of the Western Cape) described the circumstances through which South Africa gave up its nuclear weapons programme. For one thing, the ANC didn’t want the weapons; for another, the US had carried out a “Hostile Nations Contingency Planning Exercise” which had decided that Nelson Mandela would pass nuclear secrets to Gaddafi in Libya. Christie commented that this was nonsense, proposing that the US’s real concern had been to prevent the Bomb falling into “non-white hands”. “The West would not support a democratic settlement [in South Africa] unless the Bomb was not there.” This suited the ANC, which didn’t want the Bomb anyway.

This seems at odds, though, with ex-AEC head Waldo Stumpf’s statement that “official date of implementation of the termination of South Africa’s weapons program” is 26th February 1990.

Ben at Ken Yersel


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?


Julian Lewis’ nuclear arguments

3 September 2006

Julian Lewis MP‘s article in International Affairs 82 (4) July 2006, p.667-673 (but also available here) contains an extremely clear and forceful presentation of the arguments against disarmament. Part of its power lies in the historical detail and speculation which makes the reader feel the fear that militates in favour of a deterrent; but here’s a summary of some of his main claims:

1. No tool has intrinsic moral properties, therefore there is nothing intrinsically immoral about nuclear weapons. Morals come into the picture only when we consider the uses to which a tool is put, and though it is wrong implicitly to threaten others with destruction, this wrong is justified by the much greater wrong which it averts (namely, an attack by massive weapons of destruction on the UK).

2. There is a need for a general and flexible deterrent like Trident, because wars break out unpredictably and we can’t know where or when the new threat will arise. We can understand where a war came from in hindsight, but can’t predict it.

3. The disarmament lobby underestimates how dangerous the world is: “it is a constant failing of the disarmament lobby to try to ascribe values of reasonableness, tolerance, goodwill and peaceful intent to states under the control of despots, fanatics and dictators.”

4. There is no causal link between our possession of nuclear weapons and another country’s desire to acquire them: so the purpose of wider disarmament will not be furthered if the UK gives up its nuclear weapons. In fact, it will encourage other countries to attack us.

These arguments seem compelling, but (as argued by KCA77 in the previous post) their logical conclusion seems to be that every state should possess a deterrent – but this is an outrageous conclusion since then acccidental detonation or accidental war would be a near-certainty. Lewis might argue that to avoid this state of affairs, the peace-loving nuclear weapons states should club together to prevent other states getting nuclear weapons! – Exactly what was meant to be happening, before the NPT fell apart.

What do you think? Please comment!

Ben @ kenyersel


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.


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.


Edinburgh Book Festival: Mark Thomas is wrong about Trident!

20 August 2006

Mark Thomas, speaking at the Edinburgh Book Festival, said that he thought the decision to replace Trident had already been taken. I don’t think this is a helpful comment; nor do I think it’s true.

Even if the decision had been taken it would be possible to reverse it, so it would be worth pursuing the arguments against replacement anyway. But why should we think it has been taken at all? One reason might be that Gordon Brown said he backed replacement in his speech at Mansion House on the 21st June 2006.

There was a huge outcry in response to this. In fact, it galvanised the anti-nuclear lobby, boosted CND membership (out of the doldrums) and prompted influential people to speak out against it (in Scotland: the two principal religious leaders, the Cardinal and the Moderator). People couldn’t believe the gift Brown had made to the cause of disarmament.

Does Gordon Brown’s speech provide any actual evidence that he is in favour of Trident replacement? Being bound by Cabinet Collective Reponsibility, he cannot say anything else, so we might think (in a Chomskian mode) that his statements in favour of it are predictable and carry no real information.

We might go further: perhaps it is possible that Brown anticipated the response that his announcement would elicit; if he did, then perhaps this was a preemptive challenge to the disarmament lobby (a view expressed here).

But might it have been something else? Perhaps he actually wanted to provoke greater anti-nuclear political activity. It’s a fair bet that Brown will become Prime Minister soon, and when he does, presiding over disarmament would be a way for him to make his stamp on history – something on which he has already been shown to be keen. A strong and coherent disarmament movement might be the excuse he needs to assert a break with the past, prove that he listens to the public and make his mark on history.

This could be speculation pushed too far; but it should at least give pause to those who think that Trident replacement is a done deal. My view is that the evidence is unclear, and that given this we should pursue meaningful debate in the hope that there is still everything to play for.