Britain’s nuclear arsenal will always be an issue that passionately divides public opinion. Never before has the economic investment required to maintain a deterrent been so hard for the government to justify than in present times. In the same week that spending cuts continue to decimate public services and European financial security rests on the edge of an abyss awaiting Greek election results, Secretary of State for Defence, Phillip Hammond, has announced a £1 billion contract for reactors in the next generation of the UK’s nuclear-armed submarines. The deal is part of larger plans to replace the Vanguard fleet by 2028, which carries the Trident nuclear deterrent.
It is a decision that is likely to be a flashpoint for the coalition, with the Liberal Democrats calling for a cheaper alternative. Phillip Hammond said last week that the government was “committed to maintaining a credible nuclear deterrent”. The force of public opinion is frankly never going to alter the government’s decision on a matter is that is dictated by hypothetical geo-political theory and institutionalised strategic insecurities. Therefore, it is logical that if we are going to have a nuclear deterrent, we may as well have the best one possible. What is the point in spending money on something that is ineffective if ever called upon?
…could we even respond in retaliation?
The irony of the whole situation is that we maintain a nuclear capability in order that we never have to enact it. We have Trident, not so we have the potential to strike, but so we ourselves are not the victim of an attack. The idea behind a nuclear deterrent is based on Cold War conditions, far from the reality of today’s geo-politics. Of all the states that continue to have nuclear capability, it is the former colonial powers, Britain and France, which seemingly have no rationale behind the decision. Attacks against Israel have undoubtedly been prevented due to their large nuclear deterrent, the India-Pakistan conflict is locked in stalemate due to the acceptance of Mutually Assured Destruction, while China and the USA maintain their arsenal’s on account of their vast economic and therefore political influence. Russia, in many respects, like Britain and France, basks on former glories and yet continues to provide a counter-weight to US geo-political dominance.
Britain’s political ties with the United States, strong since 1945, ensure that if anyone were ever to launch a strike, we could surely be assured of American support. Certainly, were a conflict with a fellow nation state ever be close to approaching nuclear levels, international diplomacy would surely find a solution. If a strike did occur on the UK, could we even respond in retaliation? Indeed what would be the point? It wouldn’t prevent the strike on ourselves that had already occurred, and yet would unleash unbelievable destruction on millions of largely innocent people.
…we simply cannot afford to maintain nuclear capabilities.
Any nuclear threat in the future is likely to come from extremist terrorist organisations which may develop nuclear capabilities. A deterrent is unlikely to be effective against an ideologically driven attack while retribution would unavoidably target innocent people and wouldn’t provide resolve to any attack on Britain. There is no denying that if terrorist organisations were ever to develop a nuclear capability, the fallout would be truly horrifying.
Therefore, what are we to do? If we are never going to use Trident, and maintain it only as a deterrent, why not rely on the deterrent our richer allies can provide? Britain is no longer the imperial superpower she once was and we simply cannot afford to maintain nuclear capabilities. Our role on the world stage can be better served through diplomatic leadership, not investment in weapons that are never actually going to be used.
…I seek a role for Britain in the world…
And yet the government continues to believe that Trident is a necessity. There are rational considerations behind this. If we are to maintain an active role internationally a seat at the UN Security Council is essential. Decommissioning nuclear weapons could pose a threat to this. Furthermore, relying on American support in the event of a nuclear confrontation is a clear challenge to national sovereignty and affords Washington even greater control over our foreign policy.
My argument thus far has only touched on the humanitarian impact were a nuclear war ever to escalate. If an organisation or nation is serious about launching a nuclear weapon at the UK they will, regardless of the potential retaliation. I find little solace in the fact that our government has the ability to inflict unimaginable violence and suffering on any group of people even if they provoked it. Perhaps the government is aware of threats to the UK today that I am not. But I seek a role for Britain in the world where any provocation can be resolved politically. Trident is no such solution.