It may be apocryphal but it still says a lot. An inner-cabinet group of Clement Attlee's post-1945 Labour government was discussing whether, in the wake of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Britain should develop its own nuclear weapons. Why not instead rely merely on close cooperation with the United States? The ebullient foreign secretary and former trade unionist, Ernest Bevin, was emphatic: "I don't care what sort of bomb it is, as long as it has a bloody Union Jack on top of it" (see Brian Cathcart, "Britain and the atomic bomb", 5 August 2005).
Ever since then, Britain's nuclear forces have had at least as much to do with national status as with the perceived requirements of security. This is as much true for the decision to replace the Trident-missile system as it was for its predecessors (see "Britain's nuclear-weapons fix", 29 June 2006). Yet even as the initial design work is done on a new generation of ballistic-missile submarines, the international climate is changing.
In part this is due to the proliferation of nuclear weapons across south Asia, together with the claims that Iran has nuclear-arms ambitions (see Jan De Pauw, "Iran, the United States and Europe: the nuclear complex", 5 December 2007). But one result of the fears over proliferation is that some surprising voices have begun to stress the need not just to control proliferation but even to move towards a post-nuclear world. In the United States, senior politicians from across the political divide (such as Henry Kissinger and Sam Nunn) have advanced these arguments, as have figures (such as Douglas Hurd, Malcolm Rifkind, David Owen, and George Robertson) from centre-right and centre-left in the United Kingdom (see Rebecca Johnson, "Britain's new nuclear abolitionists", Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 15 July 2008).
Paul Rogers is professor of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He has been writing a weekly column on global security on openDemocracy since 26 September 2001.
A last-ditch strategy
The British government, too, has spoken of the crucial need to make progress in countering proliferation, with the national-security strategy making this one of the priorities: "Our approach to proliferation reflects our commitment to act early to reduce future threats, our commitment to multilateralism and the rules-based international system, and our willingness to work with partners beyond government" (see Cabinet Office, National Security Strategy, 19 March 2008). In this climate, the 2010 five-year review of the non-proliferation treaty (NPT) - which was signed in 1968, and came into force in 1970 - looms large; though many arms-control analysts are cautious as to whether there is scope for real progress (see Richard Falk & David Krieger, "After the nuclear non-proliferation treaty", 27 April 2006).
For Britain to have any role in getting what the government wants - "achieving a positive outcome to the 2010 NPT Review Conference", according to the national security strategy - one of the major problems is that non-nuclear states simply cannot take Britain seriously. It may point to a planned 20% reduction in warhead numbers for the Trident replacement system, but that will still leave an arsenal of around 160 weapons, most of them very much larger than the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Trident white paper also made clear that Britain would retain its current option of a willingness to use nuclear weapons first, implying that Britain's nuclear-targeting options go very much beyond the idea of a last-ditch deterrence against a threat to the United Kingdom.
The British people as a whole do not share the nuclear complex of their leaders, though if anything there is more broad-based opposition to nuclear weapons in Scotland (where the nuclear-submarine fleet is based). But there does remain a feeling that nukes both are part of the country's status and do provide some kind of insurance policy against attack. Whatever the validity of this argument, it is a political fact of life at present, but it still means that there is scope for innovative moves that could help kick-start real progress at the 2010 review of the NPT.
In addition to his weekly openDemocracy column, Paul Rogers writes an international security monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group; for details, click here.
Paul Rogers's most recent book is Why We're Losing the War on Terror (Polity, 2007) - an analysis of the strategic misjudgments of the post-9/11 era and why a new security paradigm is needed.
One option would have six elements:
* Cancel plans to build four large ballistic-missile submarines to replace the current Vanguard-class boats
* Cancel plans for a new generation of nuclear warheads
* Scale down warhead numbers from 200 to just thirty (an 85% reduction); and have modified warheads available to deploy, if ever thought necessary, with cruise missiles on attack submarines (which already deploy such missiles with conventional warheads)
* Phase out the entire Trident system as soon as this much-reduced force is available - certainly within a maximum of five years, and probably fewer
* Adopt an openly stated policy of "no first use" of nuclear weapons
* Aspire to the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons in Britain when international progress allows
These are actually quite modest proposals. South Africa, Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan all went non-nuclear in the 1990s; this followed the example of Brazil and Argentina, which gave up their competitive nuclear-weapons aspirations a decade earlier.
A farewell to arms?
The last of the United States nuclear weapons based on British soil have now - after fifty-four years, spanning the decades from the cold war to the "war on terror" - been withdrawn from the Lakenheath air-base in Suffolk, southeast England. In the 1980s especially their presence engendered huge political dispute, but their removal caused scarcely a whisper of debate controversy or even acknowledgment (see Hans Kristensen, "U.S. Nuclear Weapons Withdrawn From the United Kingdom", Federation of American Scientists [Strategic Security Blog], 26 June 2008).
Even so, if Britain really is addicted to nuclear weapons as part of its perception of international status, then retaining a minimal force should answer that, at least for the time being, while enabling the Foreign & Commonwealth Office to play a serious high-profile role in the NPT review for the first time ever (see Patricia Lewis, "The NPT review conference: no bargains in the UN basement", 1 June 2005).
There would no doubt be opposition to any such move in some political circles (although all-party support is certainly not out of the question, given the views of the Conservative statesmen Rifkind and Hurd) and there would certainly be major opposition from the armaments lobby because of the loss of some particularly large contracts. Across the armed forces, though, the opposition would be minimal. Both the army and Royal Air Force are facing major funding problems and even in the Royal Navy there are many mid-career and senior officers who regard Trident replacement as an unnecessarily expensive sacred cow (or another kind of animal; see "Gordon Brown's white elephants", 26 July 2007).
Whether the current government has the political courage to drive such a change through is open to question, but one thing is certain - it has no chance of paying an effective role in controlling proliferation without such action. On the other hand, if it does so, then it would be the one state among the so-called "big five" nuclear powers (along with Russia, China, France and the United States) - also therefore among the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council - that could claim it was really serious about preventing a slide to a more dangerously proliferating world.