“While you waited for this bus, Britain spent another £20,000 on nuclear weapons.” That’s a poster doing the rounds on London’s buses at the moment, sponsored by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). It’s a message that resonates with me.
At a time of austerity, Britain is still wasting billions on nuclear weapons. In my opinion, the idea of Britain’s nuclear deterrent is a laughable anachronism. Both colours of government appear to support nuclear weapons however, and seem to think we can’t possible do without them.
But is that true? Let’s ask a few simple questions about Britain’s nuclear weapons.
First, are we ever going to use them?
No, of course not. It would be genocidal and could never be justified, even in retaliation. But then everybody knows that using them isn’t the point – they are there as a deterrent. So that leads us to question two:
Who is being deterred?
Try as I might, I can’t think of anyone who wants to attack us but is not doing so because we hold nuclear weapons. Can you? Iran doesn’t. The North Koreans don’t. Russia and China aren’t enemies. You have to go back 40 years to find a genuine deterrent in effect in global politics.
But what about rogue states?
That’s always the next question – we need our nukes to restrain aggressive nations like Iran. But how is that supposed to work? The promise of mutually assured destruction doesn’t work on madmen, nor would it work on a government that believed it was conducting a holy war. If a country or rogue faction were to attack Israel for example, and be nuked in return, that would just be martyrs for the cause.
Do our nuclear weapons make the world safer?
Our nuclear weapons certainly aren’t a deterrent against others developing the technology. Plenty of people are queuing up to join the club. And who can blame them? Nuclear weapons are the ultimate status symbol for an aspiring international power – nobody pushes you around if you’ve got a big red button in your bunker. The more countries there are with nuclear weapons, the more those without them will want to develop the technology. And the more countries have nukes, the more unsafe the world will be. In that sense, our ongoing commitment to nuclear weapons is making the world more dangerous.
Is membership of the club worth it?
Okay, so we’re never going to use them and the deterrent is admittedly questionable – but Britain would lose too much standing in international relations to give them up. This statement is where most of my conversations about nuclear weapons end up. I suspect it is what our politicians think too. We won’t give them up because it’s a matter of pride. It’s an ego thing. We know they’re a useless and dangerous waste of money, but all the big boys have got them. And being a small country whose glories are behind us, we so desperately desperately want to pretend that we’re still one of the big players.
Ultimately, this is where you need to make your choice about nuclear weapons. They’re a Cold War defense strategy and have no place in modern warfare. They will, God willing, never be fired. They deter nobody. Their only function today is as an instrument of technological hegemony – I’ve got one and you haven’t.
Personally, I don’t think that’s good enough, and I think we’d have much to gain from disarmament. There’s nobody who is deterred by Britain’s nukes who isn’t deterred by America’s, so we can stop pretending we have an ‘independent’ nuclear deterrent. (We lease our missiles from the US anyway, so our programme is only an extension of theirs) We can unilaterally disarm without making the world less safe, or handing power to rogue states. We’d build peace, we’d set a good example, and we’d save £100 billion.
If we’re going to join the noble club of countries that have given up nuclear weapons (a club of one – South Africa), then now is the time to do it. The submarine-based Trident system is reaching the end of its life, and we have a decision to make as a nation. Do we renew it, replace it, or abandon nuclear weapons altogether? It really ought to be an easier decision than it has turned out to be.