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?

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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’.


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


Moral challenge

31 August 2006

I’ve just been reading a publication from Justice and Peace Scotland entitled Nuclear Weapons. Replacing Trident- A Scottish Catholic Response. Unsurprisingly, it takes a strong moral stance against Trident renewal. Now I’ve been studiously avoiding the moral arguments around the Trident issue since (a) I don’t want to be aligned with the ‘x is just plain wrong’ crowd and (b) (a) is pretty much guaranteed given my supreme lack of skill in the moral-reasoning field. Against my better judgement, though, I’m going to step into the fray (then hopefully extricate myself without a scratch following some fancy logical footwork)….

So, let’s say that there is a strong moral argument for renewing the UK’s nuclear capabilities. Now given that *any* state – I propose – will be able to use a similar argument to defend their holding or developing nuclear weapons, would it then not be immoral to deny them the opportunity to do so. It would certainly be hypocritical.

So I suppose I’m saying that holding a nuclear deterrent cannot be justified on moral grounds unless one is happy to defend the right of all nations to retain a nuclear arsenal.

(Oh no. I knew this would happen. I’m not dancing merrily out of the moral fray, I’m foppishly throwing down a gauntlet.)

You sir! You! You in the pro-Trident Lobby. You, sir, are an immoral pragmatist or a defender of unfettered nuclear proliferation. And I’ll see you at the end of my rapier if you say otherwise…


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.