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Dangerous omissions and intellectual obfuscation: the ‘left-wing’ case for Trident

Recent arguments claiming to make a left wing case for Trident are riddled with holes.

By Photo: LA(Phot) Will Haigh/MOD, OGL

Jeremy Corbyn’s election as the Leader of the Labour party has generated a number of articles from left and centre-left writers attempting to steer a course, as they see it, between Corbyn’s support for scrapping Trident on the one hand, and the Tory government’s plans to renew the nuclear weapons system on the other.

In April 2016 Paul Mason, considered by many to be one of the most left-wing journalists working in the mainstream, produced a short video for the Guardian titled ‘The leftwing case for nuclear weapons’. A day later he published an article called ‘A new defence doctrine for Labour’, which fleshed out his thesis. According to Mason, Labour should support the renewal of Trident. And should Scotland vote for independence and to scrap Trident, then Labour should support the movement of the nuclear base from Faslane in Scotland to a location in England.

Similarly, in October 2015 Jonathan Leader Maynard, a lecturer in International Relations at the University of Oxford and a Research Associate of the Oxford Institute for Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict, published a piece on the New Statesman website arguing for a consideration of the many options other than full replacement of Trident or complete disarmament. His proposal? Britain should “possess as limited and low-cost a nuclear deterrent as possible, for the exceptionally unlikely scenarios when it could be needed in the medium-term.”

Stop the War Coalition’s Lindsey German wrote a good, quick response to Mason, noting how his “left wing case for nuclear weapons” is actually “no different from the right wing case for nuclear weapons”. However, there are a number of very serious problems with both Mason’s and Maynard’s articles, problems which are common in other commentaries on the topic, so I think are worth highlighting and considering.

Language problems

In her influential 1987 journal article ‘Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals’, Carol Cohn explored how the language used to discuss nuclear weapons is laden with unspoken, often subtle ideological and propagandistic framing. After spending considerable time speaking with and observing experts (almost all men) in the field, Cohen “was gripped by the extraordinary language used to discuss nuclear war. What hit me first was the elaborate use of abstraction and euphemism, of words so bland that they never forced the speaker or enabled the listener to touch the realities of nuclear holocaust that lay behind the words.”

Mason and Maynard are both guilty of using bland and deliberately misleading military and government-derived definitions and terminology, with both authors unwittingly defining and discussing the topic in particularly establishment and military-friendly ways. I suspect both authors would be horrified by this suggestion, so let me provide examples of the hidden assumptions and framing in their arguments.


Both Maynard and Mason are happy to unquestionably and uncritically refer to Trident as part of the UK’s “defence policy”. “Defence” is, of course, a deeply political, deeply problematic descriptor for UK military policy that critical writers and thinkers have tried to draw attention to and unpack. It was, after all, the Ministry of War before it was given a PR makeover and renamed the Ministry of Defence. Indeed, after the aggressive and deadly invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan – interventions described by Maynard as part of “defence spending” – surely only the most brainwashed would continue to refer to the UK’s “defence policy” without breaking into fits of laughter?

The extreme centre

Maynard describes unilateral disarmament, like full replacement, as an “extreme option”, before noting “unilateral complete disarmament” is “just as dangerous” as fully replacing Trident. Mason doesn’t make such explicit statements about scrapping Trident but like Maynard’s article his piece is implicitly trying to steer a course to what he sees as the middle ground – which includes the retention of nuclear weapons – between the left and right of the Labour party.

“War policy” becomes the much more benign “defence policy”. Reducing the ability of the UK’s armed forces to commit genocide is “extreme” rather than an urgent rationale, humane and moral task. Adhering to international law (see below) is “extreme” while retaining a reduced nuclear weapons capability is the sensible, right thing to do. The problem with framing one’s argument in terms of the mythical centre ground is that it ignores the global context which shows it is those who support retaining nuclear weapons that are extreme, unusual and in the minority: currently just nine nations possess nuclear weapons, which means over 180 nations on earth do not have nuclear weapons.

National security

Both Mason and Maynard uncritically invoke the highly-loaded, and again, highly-contested term “national security” in their defences of the retention of nuclear weapons. Do all sections of society equally gain from notions of “national security”? Who makes the decisions regarding “national security”? By what actions is it achieved? One key use of the term is obviously as propaganda – deployed to close down awkward questions such as these. Even if one were to accept the term at face value, there is little evidence to suggest nuclear weapons positively influences national security.

Mason makes the extraordinary claim that “a government prepared to make significant inroads into the power and wealth of the elite needs to demonstrate it can safeguard national security”. Back in the real world, anyone who has been awake and sentient since 2001 will have noticed that successive UK (and US) governments have consistently carried out actions that have predictably endangered the lives of British people at home and abroad. As Noam Chomsky has observed, the dirty little secret of “national security policy” is that “security is at most a marginal concern of security planners”.


Maynard begins his piece by referring in passing to “Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent”.  Interestingly, James Strong, a fellow International Relations Lecturer with a PhD from the University of Oxford, is also happy to refer to the UK’s “independent nuclear deterrent”. Unfortunately for our Oxford graduates, this is simply not true. In July 2014 the Guardian’s Defence and Security specialist (see the Guardian is at it too) penned an article titled ‘UK’s nuclear deterrent entirely dependent on the US – crossparty report’. Quoting a new report from the independent all-party Trident Commission, Richard Norton-Taylor explained the life expectancy of Trident could be measured in months without the cooperation of the US. “Not only are Britain's Trident missiles in a common pool shared with the US and maintained in Kings Bay, Georgia”, he explains, “its nuclear warheads are designed and maintained at the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston with the help of US know-how, as recently declassified documents on the UK-US Mutual Defence Agreement confirmed.”

In 2015 the former 2nd Division commander Major General Patrick Cordingley noted the US “control everything about our nuclear deterrent, we can’t fire it without them… we could simply not press the button and fire one ourselves, we just can’t do it, I promise you.” This is echoed by Ted Seay, a senior policy consultant at the London-based British American Security Information Council (BASIC), who spent three years as part of the US Mission to NATO, who has also noted “It would also be unthinkable for the UK to launch a strike outside of NATO… to say that you could launch a unilateral attack over the heads of NATO and Washington might be theoretically true, but practically speaking it’s rubbish.”

A deterrent?

Of course, “deterrence” itself – repeatedly referred to by Mason and Manyard – is another example of terminology that is far from neutral or descriptive but rather ideologically loaded in support of nuclear weapons culture.

First, it suggests a defensive posture. Indeed, Maynard’s examples suggest he is only able to consider British nuclear policy as defensive in nature, discussing how nations such as Argentina or “an ISIS-like entity” could attempt “to elicit considerable concessions out of Britain on our vital interests”. The problem with this framing is that, like virtually every war throughout history, most nuclear arsenals and weapons systems are publicly justified as defensive. But with much of history showing that the words uttered by established power are generally meant to disguise its actions, what I’d like to politely suggest is maybe highly educated, privileged and influential members of the elite should have developed a sufficiently critical mind to not blindly repeat the underlying assumptions behind government’s framing of an issue.

In reality the UK threatened to use nuclear weapons during the war on Iraq in 2003 – that is it has carried out, in the words of activist and author Milan Rai, nuclear terrorism. So far from deterring a threat to the UK’s “national security”, in this instance Trident was used to discourage another government from resisting the US and UK’s aggressive invasion of their nation.

Second, the theory of deterrence is based on the assumption that all antagonists are rational actors. What, then, to make of Maynard’s baffling argument that Trident should be retained  in case “a really ghastly regime, perhaps an ISIS-like entity that gains statehood and then acquires nuclear weapons”? In an inversion of most observers understanding of the uselessness of Trident in the face of terrorism, Maynard maintains this entity “might be more prone to launch them directly against the UK or our allies if the certainty of deterrent is not present.”

The improbable nuclear apocalypse?

Maynard argues “nuclear apocalypse” is a “science fiction improbability”. He would do well to read the 2014 Chatham House report ‘Too Close for Comfort: Cases of Near Nuclear Use and Options for Policy’ before making such foolish statements. “The decades since 1945 have been punctuated by a series of disturbing close calls”, the report’s authors note, highlighting 13 instances when nuclear weapons were perilously close to being used. “The probability of inadvertent nuclear use… is higher than had been widely considered”, they conclude. Eric Schlosser, author of the 2013 book ‘Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety’, summarised the story of just how close the world came to a nuclear war during the Cuban missile crisis:

“On October 27 1962, off the coast of Cuba, when American forces dropped practice depth charges to force a Soviet submarine to the surface, two of the three officers in charge of the sub voted to respond by firing nuclear weapons. They mistakenly believed the submarine was under attack. Vasili Arkhipov, the second-in-command, refused to authorise the use of nuclear weapons, and the vote to do so had to be unanimous. Arkhipov’s refusal prevented the world’s first nuclear war.”

None of these frightening close calls are mentioned by Mason or Maynard in their support for the retention of nuclear weapons. Why?

International law

Neither Mason nor Maynard deem international law important enough to mention, let alone discuss. This seems especially odd when one remembers Maynard is a Research Associate of the Oxford Institute for Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict. [my emphasis added]

Neither mentions the fact that Britain is a signatory to the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which states “each of the parties to the treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament”. According to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament this requirement under Article VI was strengthened at the 2000 NPT Review Conference, with the addition of the commitment by the nuclear weapons states to “an unequivocal undertaking to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals.” According to seven International Law specialists writing to the Guardian in 2006, the replacement of Trident would constitute a material breach of the NPT. A 2005 legal opinion produced by Rabinder Singh QC and Professor Christine Chinkin agrees, as does Kofi Annan, who noted as the United Nations Secretary-General in 2006 that “All of the NPT nuclear-weapon States are modernizing their nuclear arsenals or their delivery systems. They should not imagine that this will be accepted as compatible with the NPT.”

And should the UK ever threaten to use or actually use a nuclear weapon – that is, commit genocide (again, a word strangely absent from Mason’s and Maynard’s articles) – the International Court of Justice concluded in 1996 that this “would generally be contrary to the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict, and in particular the principles and roles of humanitarian law.” This judgement is based on the 1977 Geneva Convention Protocol which states “the civilian population shall not be the object of attack” and bans “methods or means of warfare which are intended, or may be expected, to cause widespread, long-term and severe damage to the natural environment.”

Increasing proliferation

Finally, both authors do not mention the effect and influence that nations possessing nuclear weapons have on other nations. As Professor Mary Kaldor noted last year during an London School of Economics public event on Jeremy Corbyn’s foreign policy the UK’s continued ownership of nuclear weapons “legitimises a sort of discourse in which power depends on destruction capacity. And what that means is that obviously there is a reason for other countries to acquire nuclear weapons. Sooner or later some mad person might get them. So the only thing our having nuclear weapons does is to say to people ‘having a nuclear weapon makes you important’. And then everybody else wants to have the same.” In short, there is a direct link between the retention of Trident and the likelihood of further proliferation of nuclear weapons around the world, as the Director of Medact pointed out in 2006.

The elusive informed national debate

Writing in the Guardian in 2013 Schlosser argued “Britain has never had a full, vigorous debate about its nuclear weapons, based on the facts.” Chockful of crucial omissions, obfuscation and ideologically loaded language, Mason’s and Maynard’s articles do not get us any closer to this much needed informed national discussion. Indeed, by uncritically repeating all of the dubious terms and definitions above, the authors are effectively helping to normalise the politically questionable definitions and terms that help to provide linguistic support for the retention of Trident.

More broadly, at the same time they unwittingly reveal uncomfortable truths about their own establishment and military-friendly mindsets, the authors also inadvertently raise awkward questions about the intellectual standards and rigour of the supposedly top university in the country and our so-called quality media. To paraphrase Will Hunting, the numerous errors, slips and omissions that Mason and Maynard make are so basic and obvious that they could be easily found, understood and bettered by anyone willing to spend £1.50 in late charges at their local public library.

About the author

Ian Sinclair is the author of The March That Shook Blair: An Oral History of 15 February 2003, published by Peace News Press. He tweets @IanJSinclair.

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