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Britain's choice: nuclear weapons or foreign policy

About the author

Dan Plesch is the author of America, Hitler and the UN (I.B.Tauris 2011) and The Beauty Queen's Guide to World Peace, (Politico's 2004) and Director of the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy at SOAS, University of London.

I was invited to attend an Institute of Public Policy Research (ippr)/ London School of Economics one-day conference on 15 July 2006 to discuss a new "progressive foreign policy" for the United Kingdom. The nuclear issue does not appear to be on the agenda - but without a debate on nuclear weapons, such discussions are futile. Yet once it is included, it becomes clear that such sessions are exercises in self-delusion: for Britain in particular and the world in general.

The agreement to create a successor to the Trident nuclear-weapons system was probably made by 2004 when President Bush agreed to continue the policy of previous presidents and supply Britain with nuclear-weapons parts until 2014. The renewal of this Mutual Defence Agreement was conducted at the US end by John Bolton's section of the state department.

It is also known that historically the key decisions on nuclear policy have been made in private conversations between US presidents and British prime ministers: Franklin D Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, Harry Truman and Clement Attlee, John F Kennedy and Harold Macmillan, Jimmy Carter and Jim Callaghan, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.

The details of these negotiations are secret. Tony Blair blocked attempts at parliamentary scrutiny. More recently, the House of Commons defence committee has for the first time a serious look at the independence of British nuclear arms, taking extensive evidence from academics and civil-society voices. But the overall secrecy means that public debate must focus on what was agreed in 2004 rather than feed the pretence that any real decisions lie in the future; and reject the illusion that the Americans permit any British politicians other than the prime minister to know the facts.

Blair's predecessor, John Major, made the telling observation that although he had been both chancellor and foreign secretary he was startled to find out so much more about the realities of international politics on becoming prime minister.

My own research makes it clear that many British civil servants and politicians who ought to have known the nuclear realities, simply do not.

It is necessary to go back half a century – as I have detailed in a recent study, "The Future of Britain's WMD" – to find declassified minutes that depict the true reality. The head of British nuclear forces commented that even in the 1950s, British nuclear independence was a "myth"; the Pentagon explained publicly in 1962, that British nuclear forces did not operate independently; Richard Scott, permanent secretary to Britain's then prime minister Harold MacMillan, wrote in the early 1960s that the supply of Polaris "put Britain in America's pocket" (see the House of Commons defence committee, The Future of the UK's Strategic Nuclear Deterrent: The Strategic Context, June 2006).

Today, no one even bothers to take minutes.

Also by Dan Plesch in openDemocracy:

"Iran: the coming war" (March 2005)

"The hidden history of the United Nations" (April 2005)

"Britain's intelligence secret: under the influence" (May 2005)

"The United Nations in Bush's firing-line" (September 2005)

The politics of illusion

Britain's Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston is now part-owned by Lockheed Martin, and its managing director is an American. Lockheed also owns Insys, the company that the ministry of defence relies on to tell it if Aldermaston is doing its job. It is now known that for half a century the US has sent Britain radioactive explosive parts, detonators, fuses and blueprints for supposedly British bombs. All the computer software, guidance and missile technology is imported.

Moreover, through Nato the US military keeps track of the Trident submarines and has every military, technical and political means of preventing Britain from using the weapons if ever the UK faces a repeat of the predicament of 1940 and "stands alone".

A replacement for Trident could still be in service in 2070; the commitment to build this weapons system thus ties Britain to the US for most of the 21st century. At the same time, a properly independent system would cost around £200 billion. Such nuclear independence is not an option.

Their bitter domestic differences aside, most US Democrats and Republicans share the view that this is to be America's century; a Hillary Clinton presidency (for example) won't bring much change. As long as Britain's fundamental stance towards the US remains unaltered, all the hopes and fears of British citizens and their children – over global warming, poverty, oil wars, relations with China and the control of corporations – will be filtered through a political elite attuned not to upset Washington.

The political implication for British citizens is clear. If they wish to support a Trident successor (perhaps in the "progressive" interest of avoiding a repeat of the Labour Party's embarrassment of 1983, when its messy embrace of a "unilateral nuclear disarmament" policy helped lead it to humiliation in the election) then they surrender their right ever again to complain about having to follow US policy on any issue.

The military implication of a commitment to Trident's successor is also clear. There will be more nuclear tests and revived efforts to create strategic missile defence ("star wars"). The launch of a nuclear war by the US with British assistance against terrorists and the states that back them cannot be ruled out; this possibility is stated plainly in the "new chapter" on defence policy after 9/11 set out by then defence secretary Geoff Hoon.

Such documentation provides an authoritative 21st-century complement of the historical analysis presented in openDemocracy by Paul Rogers (see "Britain's nuclear-weapons fix", 29 June 2006).

Britain's position as a follower of US policy means that its citizens will not be able to seek protection from disarmament treaties (the foreign-office department that used to be in charge of all that is now called "counter-proliferation"). This naïve policy assumes that a world proliferating with nuclear weapons will never have a nuclear war. If in reality, the British and the Americans would not actually use nuclear weapons, then they will have thrown away the tried and tested means of arms control for a bluff.

This is sometimes described as a "realist" approach to international relations. Far more persuasive is the "ultra-realist" approach first outlined by Albert Einstein: that the bomb has changed everything except the way we think. The Einsteinian concept – that we now hold our security in common – was taken up by academics such as Hans Morgenthau. Morgenthau is taught in universities as a prophet of supposedly realist ideas of state power that he developed in the pre-nuclear age. This is analogous to the medieval Catholic Church adopting Galileo as its sage, based solely on his work before he picked up a telescope.

Colin S Gray, a realist in international-relations theory, believes that the British bomb is reliant on American "goodwill" – not a concept normally associated with a disciple of Machiavelli and Clausewitz. In any case, there is no such goodwill. In 2002, a senior US official shot at me: "Why is Blair bothering to support Bush? We know he is not Thatcher."

Also in openDemocracy on Britain and nuclear weapons:

Brian Cathcart, "Britain and the atomic bomb"
(5 August 2005)

Paul Rogers, "Britain’s nuclear-weapons fix" (29 June 2006)

Indeed, whatever the British left may think of him, from the perspective of US politicians our Tony is a far-left liberal supporting all the issues most hated by American conservatives: the right to abortion, gay marriage, guns out of private hands, and socialised medicine. Furthermore, his government is full of former communists, trade-union organisers and anti-apartheid activists. The Bush administration takes notice: after all, as a member of Congress, Dick Cheney was the poster-child for the "keep Mandela in jail" crowd. The policy consequences are evident: for example, the export terms governing US sales of conventional arms to Britain are no more favourable than those offered to Morocco.

A bad deal

To understand where Britain is likely to end up in relation to the United States in the 21st century, the Federalist Society (which Michael Lind describes as having "a confederate view of the constitution") is a better guide than the over-hyped Project for the New American Century. It was at one of the society's symposia that John Bolton – now US ambassador at the United Nations – delivered his reading of the constitution as denying international law any legal basis in America whatsoever.

The Federalist Society's members now dominate the US judiciary and the members of Bush's cabinet; the White House was so concerned by the extreme reputation of the network that it rushed to deny that the new chief justice, John Roberts, was a member when his 2005 nomination was being tested by the Senate.

A Trident successor is a bad deal not so much quadrupled as cubed. Britain can't use it when it might want to. Britain gets told what to do by people following horrible policies. The combined result is to make the world less safe. For countries, like families, some truths are too hard to take; but unless British voters are persuaded to come to terms with nuclear reality, the country might as well forget about playing a serious, progressive – and independent – role in international politics.


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