In October 1983, 200,000 people marched through London in support of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.
In October 1983, 200,000 people marched through London in support of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Thirty years on, CND has shrunk to a shadow of its former self, a seldom-heard voice, its protests no longer attracting mass support.
As an advocate of unilateral disarmament I want to use this forum to do my little bit to keep the ‘flag flying,’ and make the case again—both practical and moral—for why Britain should scrap Trident.
The United Kingdom’s nuclear weapons system was developed to act as a deterrent against the USSR. Despite the end of the Cold War, advocates of Britain’s nuclear deterrent maintain that uncertainty about the future warrant its retention prudent, as Tony Blair argued ‘we cannot be certain in the decades ahead that a major nuclear threat to our strategic interests will not emerge.’ He cited North Korea and Iran as possible threats.
The UK has limited resources, and any decisions over what capabilities should be maintained by our armed forces must be based on a reasonable assessment of probable future threats. Evidence suggests that we are unlikely to be threatened by a nuclear-armed state in the near future.
Blair cited North Korea and Iran. Not only is NK unlikely to target Europe, it is also nowhere-near close to possessing the technology needed to threaten distant Britain. The US government admitted in 2012 there was no evidence Iran had attempted to construct nuclear weapons in the proceeding ten years.
In 2011, British jets flew 3,000 mile trips from British bases to help enforce the Libyan no-fly zone. French jets enjoyed the luxury of being launched from a nearby aircraft carrier. This operation—localised, with specific targets and an international coalition—is typical of the conflicts Britain is likely to fight in the future.
And, yet, the government chose to prioritise our nuclear deterrent over maintaining a fully-operational aircraft carrier. The estimated cost of building the new Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers is £6.2 billion, compared to £15-20 billion for replacing Trident.
There is, then, little strategic justification for Britain’s nuclear deterrent. However, any debate on nuclear weapons must have a moral component. Without which it becomes harsh and meaningless. Put simply, the possession of nuclear weapons, with the intent of using them ‘in the last resort,’ is morally repugnant.
Nuclear weapons have awesome destructive power. A recent article in the Daily Mail, entitled ‘Inside Birmingham’s network of Cold War bunkers,’proclaimed that these 1950s bunkers would ‘have kept city running in the event of a nuclear strike.’
A step backwards
No doubt these shelters would have kept some officials alive, typewriters, telephones and maps at the ready—however, there wouldn’t have been a Birmingham for them to ‘keep running’ after a nuclear exchange. Even a small Soviet bomb would have obliterated everything from West Bromwich to Solihull.
The point here is to emphasise the indiscriminate and tremendous power of these weapons. We do not know what targets in, say, Russia our missiles are trained on. But even if these are entirely military, a retaliatory strike would still inevitably result in widespread civilian casualties.
A strike on the Murmansk submarine bases could result in 90,000 civilian deaths, on the military facilities around Moscow, upwards of 2,000,000. The fear, pain and suffering are truly beyond our comprehension. To put it bluntly, even a limited British attack on Russia would amount to the worst atrocity this country has ever perpetrated.
To conduct a war in this manner is a step back four hundred years. During the Thirty Years War it was accepted that an occupying force had obligations toward a surrendered city. However, if a city refused to surrender “anything went.”
In 1630, for example, Magdeburg was stormed by a Catholic League army, in the ensuing mayhem the entire city was burnt to the ground. These ideas are not very different from those operating in a nuclear standoff. Upon an attack by a belligerent power, Britain’s policy would be ‘surrender, or we’ll annihilate you.’
Surely this misses the point though? Mutually assured destruction guarantees we’d never have to use the bomb? But MAD is based on the complete infallibility of everyone involved. Even one mistake or irrational action could result in disaster. Peace built upon such a foundation—a foundation not of respect and shared values, but instead of mutual antagonism backed up by blackmail on an unimaginable scale—is, I would argue, far from ideal.
There exists an informal moratorium amongst the press and politicians on discussing Trident. It would seem to me that—considering its cost and potential to destroy most of modern civilization—this is a slightly odd and not particularly-helpful circumstance.
Is it too much to ask for our great and good to, at least, consider some of the issues I have raised here? It remains to be seen.
What do you think? Should the UK get rid of Trident? Have your say in the comments section below.