openDemocracyUK: Opinion

Pride: why the UK spent billions on nuclear bombs but ignored pandemic threat

A viral outbreak was judged more likely than a nuclear attack – so why was Trident ring-fenced while NHS funding was cut?

Richard Norton-Taylor
30 April 2020, 2.36pm
Onboard HMS Vigilant at HM Naval Base Clyde, Faslane, the Vanguard-class submarine carries the UK's Trident nuclear deterrent.
PA Images

We now know that the government was warned last year that a viral pandemic posed the greatest potential threat to the country. In a confidential briefing from the Cabinet Office, which was leaked last week, ministers were told that tens of thousands lives could be at risk if an outbreak occurred. Among the recommendations were stockpiling PPE (personal protective equipment) and establishing plans for a contact tracing system.

It was not the first time that warnings fell on deaf ears. In 2014, the Ministry of Defence advised that “alertness to changing trends” was vital to mitigating the likelihood of a pandemic. Senior civilian and military officials promptly shoved the report into a draw where it was left to gather dust.

To make matters worse, the austerity programme carried out over the last decade, has led to significant cuts to government projects and public services, including the NHS, that would ready us for a pandemic. There has, however, been one notable exception to the cuts – the country’s nuclear weapons arsenal. 

Tens of billions continue to be spent on weapons that are of no use against the types of attacks judged a possible threat to the UK in the government’s National Risk Register. The latest register, drawn up in 2017, refers only to the need to protect nuclear power stations and the possibility of chemical, biological and nuclear material attacks by terrorists. But it adds that terrorists’ use of conventional weapons is “far more likely”. 

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Successive governments have described Britain’s nuclear arsenal as an “ultimate insurance” against an attack, or blackmail, by a foreign power. If that is the case, then why did the government not increase its healthcare spending as insurance against what it knew was a far greater threat – an infectious pandemic.

Defenders of Britain’s nuclear weapons argue that they are needed for political reasons, to preserve Britain’s status as world power. But arguments about whether nuclear weapons would ever be considered a realistic or effective threat against a potential aggressor are dodged. 

The lack of credibility surrounding Britain’s nuclear weapons is, in this writer’s view, perfectly illustrated by David Greig’s play, ‘The Letter of Last Resort’. In it, the prime minister, on her first day in office, discusses with a senior Whitehall official the instructions she will give a Trident submarine commander in the event of a catastrophic attack on Britain. 

“‘To write ‘retaliate’ is monstrous and irrational. To write “don’t retaliate” renders the whole nuclear project valueless,’ she says. ‘Yes, madam,’ says the official.”

Britain’s nuclear weapons are being modernised at a cost of more than £200bn, a figure the MoD does not dispute. Trident was once described by Jon Thompson, when he was the ministry’s top official, as the single biggest future financial risk Britain faced. “The project is a monster,” he said.

The project, as the National Audit Office, parliament’s financial watchdog, has repeatedly pointed out, has been beset by delays and technical problems. It also skews the defence budget, diverting resources that should be spent on cyber security and military support for civilian authorities. 

While billions are being spent on our nuclear deterrent, British troops were deployed without adequate equipment, including body armour, in Iraq and Afghanistan. And now, in the midst of the pandemic, doctors, nurses, hospitals, and care home staff, are under-equipped. The government was ill-prepared over the coronavirus crisis, and was ill-prepared for the invasion of Iraq and the counter-Taliban campaign in Afghanistan. The parallels are not exact, of course, but in both cases failures of government have led to avoidable deaths. 

These failures are the consequence of a dangerous mindset that has imbued Whitehall for far too long: a reluctance to speak truth to power combined with cognitive dissonance. The government ignores whatever it finds uncomfortable and insteads dictates its actions on the arrogant assumption that Britain, a permanent member of the UN Security Council and a nuclear power, will somehow be protected from the afflictions facing other countries. 

An internal Ministry of Defence document submitted to the Chilcot inquiry into the invasion of Iraq bluntly stated: “… the UK military was complacent and slow in recognising and adopting to changing circumstances.” It concluded that the “MoD is good at identifying lessons, but less good at learning them.” The same could be said of the government’s pandemic planning.

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