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


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.

Chill out and have a drink

13 August 2006

On Saturday lunchtime I was desperate for a plate of couscous, and I was just about to go into Edinburgh’s best cafe (“Uncle T’s”) when a big antiwar march steamed past and I was carried away.

It wasn’t entirely clear what the march was about: many people there were just pro-peace in general. Others went further, some making the strikingly false claim that “we are all Palestinians”, others complaining about the insufficent radicality of other marchers.

I couldn’t find a marcher who was pro-Trident, even though Trident is claimed to be a way of perpetuating peace; but the march was nonetheless a good chance to air the fundamental issues.

The deterrence argument for keeping Trident got short shrift: marchers argued that nukes can’t deter conventional weapons attacks, since any nuclear response would be disproportionate (and since non-state actors don’t present easy targets or worse come from the cities of the very state they are attacking). So they can only deter nuclear attacks from other nuclear powers. Well, it looks like this is as good a reason as any to keep them! But there is something fishy here.

If it is true that a nuclear power can’t launch a nuclear attack on a non-nuclear one, then getting rid of Trident would be the best deterrent. So it must be that people who are pro-Trident are seriously envisaging that there will come a time when a nuclear power will be thinking about launching a nuclear attack on the UK.

I wonder whether extreme scenarios like this should even be considered when making public policy. Think of a parallel: philosophers often discuss the possibility that they have had their brains removed and placed in fish tanks and that this whole world is an illusion – but they never suggest that consideration of these extreme cases is meant to be an actual guide to life. They are purely thought experiments; and if you find yourself getting too caught up in them you ought, David Hume suggested, to invite a few mates round, have a drink and play a few board games.

Maybe something similar could hold for defence policy too: once you’ve started scaring yourself with nuclear attack scenarios, a nuclear deterrent is going to seem essential. Maybe the answer is just to chill out a bit — and this could apply to people on peace marches too.

At the Edinburgh Fringe Festival

11 August 2006

The assumption that the world is a dangerous place underpinned a lot of Andy Zaltzman’s show, Political Animal, in the Edinburgh Fringe festival last night.  It’s an assumption that goes unquestioned – and indeed it’s increasingly hard to see how anyone could question it without being made to look ridiculous by current affairs.  This is too bad for anti-Trident campaigners, as this assumption is the basis for a strong argument in favour of replacement.

But would replacement increase or reduce that danger?  Danger and instability in the world isn’t something that happens independently of everyone’s actions – and particularly not independently of a major power like the UK.  There must be a strong argument against replacement based on what we would like the world to become, rather than on what we can confidently expect it to be like if we carry on as we have in the past.

And nothing else matters

4 August 2006

Karl Popper said that if you want to refute someone’s position, you first help them to build up the strongest possible argument for what they believe. Once all the loose ends are tied up, all the grey areas clarified, and your opponent’s argument is as strong as it can possibly can be — only then do you attack it. What’s more, you have to attack it right at its strongest point; that way you can be satisfied that if you do find a refutation, you’ve found a substantial one and you both haven’t been wasting time dancing round the handbags of triviality.

There are many comfortable but ultimately weak arguments against replacing Trident; I propose that we put these on one side and look squarely at the best argument for keeping it.

An example of a comfortable but weak argument would be: money spent on Trident would be better spent on reducing global poverty. This may be true, but the Ministry of Defence isn’t going to vire its nuclear submarine budget over to DFID just like that. So I think we shouldn’t bother making this point.

To be pro-Trident doesn’t mean to be pro-war. The best argument for keeping Trident is that it prevents war by preserving the balance of threat. So it seems to me that this is a debate about the best way to pursue peace (hence the name: nuclearpeace).

Essentially, both sides in this debate believe in deterrence. To argue against the replacement of Trident is to argue that getting rid of it will, in the long run, be a greater deterrent. It has to be argued that disarmament will result in fewer conflicts across the future sweep of history. Can this possibly be true?