Remembrance Sunday and Britain's nuclear posture

Silence has become a national means to commemorate the wartime fallen. But the public's silence over a new generation of nuclear weapons threatens to undermine the lessons of the past. 

For a generation after the 1918 armistice, all activity in the UK stopped on the 11th November, at 11 a.m. whatever the day of week. Schools fell silent. Courts adjourned. Workers in factories laid down tools. Steam trains stopped. Electricity for the trams was turned off. Traffic froze. Women and men gathered and grieved. The silence at the heart of the British Empire was so deep that you could no longer hear the rise and fall of shares on the stock exchange. Trading was suspended. All life stopped to commemorate an appalling loss of life. 

Remembrance Day was not initially a jingoistic affair. 850,000 soldiers had perished in the UK. Everyone lost family members, brothers, fathers and sons. In England and Wales, in only 52 ‘thankful villages’ were there no war dead to commemorate. Florence Green, the last veteran of the First World War allied armies died this year aged 110. With the passing of her generation it is ever more important for the UK that Remembrance Sunday does not become a hollow celebration of national victory but remains a time of reflection on the horror of war wherever it occurs. 

For Quakers, and all those committed to non-violent social change, the most responsible commemoration is to ensure that we reflect not just on the tragedy of past conflict but pause to consider how we can prevent such carnage happening again. For Greeks the ‘obscene’ was that which took place off scene; too horrendous to be enacted. Nuclear weapons are just such an obscenity, and the possession of nuclear weapons is too important an issue on which to remain silent. How often do we pause to contemplate the true immorality of maintaining weapons that could unleash the devastation of the Somme in a single flash?

This year there is another, simultaneous silence. A political silence that has been growing since 2006. Britons are poised to enter yet another generation of nuclear armament, an expenditure we can hardly afford that will commit us to the Trident nuclear weapons system for the foreseeable future. And true democratic debate on the issue is appallingly missing.

Nuclear weapons are the most expensive white elephant of them all. Ever since Ernest Bevin, as Labour Foreign Secretary, told a Cabinet Committee in 1946, “we have got to have this thing over here, whatever it costs. We have got to have the bloody Union Jack on top of it,” the maintenance of nuclear weapons has become a shibboleth of British Government. Fleet Street wisdom saw Michael Foot’s commitment to CND as costing Labour the 1987 election. A commitment to Trident was a visceral issue for the SDP. 

 It is ironic that in 1988, just at the time that Neil Kinnock came to ‘love the bomb,’ nuclear weapons became obsolescent - even according to the tortured logic of Cold War deterrence. It would be tragic if a generation later a political ‘taboo’ of the Thatcher era denied this issue effective public scrutiny. Yet, if people are unwilling to engage with this policy and press for debate in Parliament, the decision to renew Trident could go by default.

Britain currently has four nuclear submarines. Each is armed with up to 16 missiles carrying a total of up to 48 independently targetable thermonuclear weapons. Each is eight times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. Even to contemplate such destruction undermines our collective integrity. In a democracy this happens in our name. The UK maintains a nuclear arsenal with the equivalent of quarter of a ton of TNT for each man, woman and child in the UK.   

The last Labour Government committed itself to renewing Britain’s nuclear deterrent in 2006. The left remains reluctant to re-examine the decision. In 2006 Ministers and officials in the MOD refused to appear before Parliament’s Defence Select Committee looking at the replacement of Trident. But we do know that Trident is expensive. Its true cost is often camouflaged and kept from Parliament, yet in response to a Parliamentary Question from Lord Carver on December 9th 1997:

 “What is the estimated total cost in the current financial year of maintaining the capability to design, produce, maintain the safety of, store, move and dispose of nuclear weapons in the United Kingdom; and of providing, operating, maintaining and disposing of the Royal Navy's ballistic missile submarine fleet, including its missiles.” 

The Minister of State, Lord Gilbert replied with a Bill of £940 million a year. The cost of the Royal Navy's ballistic missile submarine fleet alone is £530 million in the current financial year. Since 1997 we have seen inflation of 50% yet in a climate of stringent austerity where is the consideration of Trident among the public expenditure being subjected to cuts? 

So why is Britain committed to the bomb? Global Instability and the desire for world power status are often cited as reasons.  Yet, there is little that a nuclear weapon can do to deter terrorism. Britain’s permanent seat at the Security Council is not premised on the possession of these Weapons of Mass Destruction. Maybe the humour of ‘Yes Minister’ goes to the heart of the matter. When the hapless minister, Hacker, wonders, “why we need the weapons?” the urbane Sir Humphrey responds “to protect us against the French!” Nuclear weapons have always had more to do with kudos, status and symbolic virility than with any strategic need. 

The moral case for disarmament is not the monopoly of pacifists. During the Cold war, the then Bishop of Oxford, Richard Harries, supported nuclear weapons with "fear and spiritual trembling."  He reasoned that the Soviet Union was uniquely oppressive; detente was stable; and there were circumstances where their use could be proportionate. Today circumstances have changed. Richard Harries no longer accepts the arguments.  There is a new international volatility. Justification of a nuclear deterrent would require circumstances where UK could act outside the US nuclear "umbrella."  It is impossible to conceive of use corresponding with any criteria of a just war.

Nuclear weapons undermine the international rule of law. Britain is signatory to the Non Proliferation Treaty. This requires that “each of the parties …undertakes to pursue in good faith effective measures” of disarmament. Replacing Trident is irreconcilable with such a commitment. If Britain as a small European state maintains its strategic need for nuclear weapons, why should any different logic apply to Poland or Germany or Iran?

Nuclear missiles are political weapons. Many retired Generals question our need for them. Field Marshall Michael Carver was eloquent in exposing their true cost and danger. So why is Britain committed to the bomb? Global instability and the desire for world power status are cited as reasons.  Yet, there is little that a nuclear weapon can do to deter terrorism. Britain’s permanent seat at the Security Council is not premised on their possession. The psychology of nuclear weapons is a psychology of arrogance and fear, the same tragic combination that marched men over the top by their thousands in 1914.

About the author

Michael Bartlet, is a writer, policy researcher and public interest advocate. From 1996 to 2013 he worked as Parliamentary Liaison Secretary for the Quakers. In 2001 he stood as a Labour candidate in the General Election in Witney. He is an author and editor of "Nonsense on Stilts - towards  a Quaker view of human rights."