Trident submarine, image, MoD
Tonight's Question Time quizzing of leaders saw audience members grill Jeremy Corbyn on whether he'd be willing to use Trident. It seems the nuclear question has arrived in this election.
And the important thing to remember about Trident is that that it's a strategy which depends entirely on hiding a massive submarine deep in the ocean and hoping that no one develops the technology to find it.
Crispin Blunt, the (Tory) chair of the foreign affairs select committee voted against renewal of Britain's nuclear weapons system last year for the simple reason that, in the modern world, this is an absurd assumption. As he put it:
"Marine biologists are already able to track shoals of fish in real time from several hundred miles away... If we are today able to detect the gravitational waves first created by the big bang, how can we be so confident that a capable adversary would not be able to track our submarines 20 years from now?"
A long string of former defence ministers, from Michael Portillo to Des Brown, have concluded that the whole thing is at best a massive waste of money. Even Colin Powell, former US Secretary of State and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of staff has argued that nukes are useless.
And so, here’s the interesting question: why are we willing to spend perhaps £200 billion renewing them?
One answer sometimes offered is outlined by Major General Patrick Cordingley, who led British forces in the first Gulf War. As he said in 2015:
“Strategic nuclear weapons have no military use. It would seem the government wishes to replace Trident simply to remain a nuclear power alongside the other four permanent members of the UN Security Council. This is misguided and flies in the face of public opinion; we have more to offer than nuclear bombs.”
This explanation seems half right. But this assumes that politics is about hard, long term international strategy. And I think that’s probably not quite how the world works. I suspect it’s got much more to do with sentiment – both the sentiment of our politicians, and the sentiment of a significant number of voters: sentiment shaped by history and culture and identity; by race and masculinity.
And to understand that, we need to think through the history a little. The UK was the third country in the world to test an independently developed nuclear weapon. It did so in October 1952. Five years earlier, India had become independent. The US-UK mutual defence agreement was signed in 1958. Two years later, Ghana became the first African country to leave the empire.
Over the course of the second half of the 20th century, Britain went from being the centre of the biggest empire in human history to three quarters of an archipelago in the North East Atlantic. After generations of believing that we were special, the people of Britain had to start to come to terms with just being ordinary. This isn’t just an economic and geopolitical issue, but a psychological one too.
And fortunately, like a toddler with their scrap of cloth, we had a few rags to comfort us. There’s the monarchy – which still rules over a huge swathe of the planet. There’s the City of London, which we seem willing to forgive all crimes. And appearing like magic, just at the right moment, was a massive new toy, to make us feel secure about ourselves again: our nuclear weapons.
And so, yes. It is the fact that they give us a seat on the security council which matters. But that’s only a representation of what it’s really about. The yearning for Trident – and the need for members of tonight’s Question Time audience to know that Corbyn would use it – is surely at least to some extent a part of a deep desire for a return to the days of British global “greatness”?; to the days when we could travel round the world, kill black people, and steal their stuff? It is surely at least partly about the desire to cling to British empire bling?
And, perhaps more interestingly, Corbyn has repeatedly been attacked on this terrain – whether in relation to his alleged past links with the IRA or his long term opposition to Trident. And it has largely bounced off. It has often felt, particularly, it seems, to anyone under 35, like his opponents are obsessed with the past: with resurrecting the Troubles, and the Cold War. But perhaps the fact that these issues seem not to matter so much tells us something else important: that, for a generation which doesn’t remember very much of the last century, the ability of the Tories to pull on the yearning for empire is weaker than ever.
Trident is a weapon designed for the past. Britain’s willingness to squander billions on a technology which may well be redundant before it’s been fully installed would be absurd if it were about military strategy. But as a substitute for a proper process of truth and reconciliation over empire, it’s utterly useless.