Trident Nuclear Submarine, HMS Victorious. Image: Flickr/Some rights reserved
Tory Defence Secretary Michael Fallon didn’t really want to talk about Trident in his Times article and Radio Four appearance yesterday. He wanted to talk about Ed Miliband. The jarringly shrill claim that the Leader of the Opposition would “stab the United Kingdom in the back” by failing to renew Trident, just as he had “stabbed his own brother in the back” by contesting the Labour leadership, is part of a long-standing and increasingly desperate effort to portray Miliband as an untrustworthy and dangerous “other”. As well as being distasteful in its own right, Fallon’s outburst has also precluded more mature debate over a rather important question; namely whether or not the British government should retain its ability to exterminate millions of innocent people.
Since the demise of the USSR, Trident’s defenders have invented an ingenious new excuse to retain the system: the fact that we live in an “uncertain world”. As Fallon told the Today programme, “the main argument is very simple….You can’t be clear what the threats are to this country that might emerge in the 2030s, the 2040s and the 2050s…. Therefore it would be foolhardy to abandon our nuclear submarines”. Miliband used the same argument in an interview last weekend, saying that Trident needed to be renewed “in an uncertain and unstable world”. The fact that the political class speaks in unison on this says everything you need to know about the artificial nature of yesterday’s row.
What is disingenuous about the official line is that the future, by definition, can never be anything other than uncertain. To refuse to abandon nuclear weapons as long as the future remains uncertain amounts to saying that there are no realistic circumstances under which Britain will ever decommission Trident. The problem is that Britain, like practically every other nation on Earth, is obliged under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to make good faith efforts toward complete global disarmament. The Tories and Labour can either honour that commitment or stick to a line that effectively pledges Britain to be a nuclear armed state forever. They cannot do both. If the latter path is chosen, the message then goes out to the whole world that a top five nuclear power regards the NPT as a dead document. Needless to say, this is a recipe for greater instability and insecurity, not less.
This is why the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists Science and Security Board recently pushed its famous “Doomsday Clock”, illustrating the world’s proximity to disaster, from five to three minutes to midnight. The accompanying statement, drawn up in consultation with 17 Nobel Prize laureates, said that together with climate change, “global nuclear weapons modernizations, and outsized nuclear weapons arsenals pose extraordinary and undeniable threats to the continued existence of humanity, and world leaders have failed to act with the speed or on the scale required to protect citizens from potential catastrophe. These failures of political leadership endanger every person on Earth.”
When I was a child during the final years of the Cold War, there was a palpable sense that we were living in the shadow of the bomb. Expressions of that anxiety continually appeared in the popular culture, from song lyrics to movie plots to off-hand remarks in conversation. Those signs have since disappeared, but there is nothing to justify our new complacency. A sharp escalation of tensions over Ukraine, for example, could result in a series of miscalculations or misunderstandings with unthinkable consequences, as former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev recently warned. On the previous occasions that we now know of when the world dodged the nuclear bullet, sometimes by a hair’s breadth, sober calculation has had very little to do with it. Don’t let men in suits convince you that “nuclear defence” is a rational, controlled business. It’s nothing of the sort.
Security means dealing with risk. The Westminster pro-nuclear consensus will directly increase serious risks to national and global security. Anti-Trident campaigners are not wrong to emphasise the system’s exorbitant cost, but the far bigger reason to oppose renewal remains the terrible threat nuclear weapons pose to continued life on this planet.