Breaking the Nuclear Taboo
Britain’s Trident nuclear submarines are back in the headlines. After a mass march in central London on January 24th, following the Commons debate on scrapping Trident when David Cameron, Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg and a shocking 250 other MPs caused a scandal after not even turning up to vote, this long-dormant issue has grabbed the country’s attention. Nukes are now the hot topic of conversation in kitchens, offices and factories across the land, and will surely be a key factor in how people vote in the general election in May…
Back in the real world, nobody seems terribly bothered about the dusty, unsexy topic of nuclear weapons. Yes, it is true that there was a Commons vote a few weeks ago, and the motion that “this House believes that Trident should not be renewed”, tabled by the SNP, was defeated by a huge 364-37 margin. It is also true that over 250 MPs failed to show up for the vote. It is also true that there was a big “Wrap-up Trident” march in Whitehall a few weeks ago. I know because I was there. It was colourful, inspiring, cocky, whilst also being entirely – as one would hope from the peace movement – peaceful. But, as was to be expected, these two events hardly registered at all in the mainstream media, or in the wider public consciousness.
As the fiftieth anniversary of Churchill’s death passed recently, what struck me about the nuclear weapons debate is how little has changed, on either side of the debate, in those fifty years. In 1965, the Nassau agreement had been signed by John F. Kennedy and Harold MacMillan; Polaris submarines, bought from the US, were under construction for use by the British as a deterrent against the Soviet Union; the CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) had already spent eight years campaigning against the government’s new-found enthusiasm for the Bomb.
Fast forward to 2015, and everything has changed – the cold war is a distant memory; the End of History has come and gone; today’s news is occupied with a new enemy, with islamist atrocities in France, Syria and Nigeria filling our screens; the CND’s Peace symbol has been co-opted by accessory designers, H&M and pop bands like er… Peace. But the more things change, they more they stay the same: We still pour billions into our nuclear weapons programme every year, every day, and the peace movement continues to rail against it.2015 marks a potential turning point. The UK currently has four Trident submarines, which still have about 13 years left of service, but if they are to be replaced by the next generation of nuclear submarines, the UK government will have to make its final decision on the matter within the next parliament – i.e. the MPs we elect in May will have to decide. Trident’s replacement will come with a huge price-tag of around £15-20 billion up front, plus around £2-3 billion per year for its maintenance – a total of at least £100 billion over the replacement’s lifetime. The Conservatives are in favour of spending the money, and Labour (despite being a bit more ‘cute’ about their stance) seem to be as well. That’s a lot of money to be willing to splash out in an era of supposed austerity. Russell Brand will happily tell you what that kind of money could buy you instead in terms of hospitals, schools, renewable energy, or housing, or even a big fat tax cut for everyone. It’s quite astonishing the good that you could do with £100 billion.
As reported here, consecutive polls of the British public show that a majority is consistently against replacing Trident. For most people (including myself) the main reason is not because nuclear armament is immoral (though it is), not because it flatly contradicts our legal commitments under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (it does), not because it makes us look like hypocrites when we ask other states like Iran or North Korea to disarm (it surely does), but because spending that amount on something you will never use is, simply, an obscene waste of cash.
It’s easy to get over-excited, but in any election year, change seems possible – especially with this highly unpredictable election. As I wrote in my last blog for Sociology Lens, this election will bring around the real possibility of coalition government, possibly including the SNP alongside Labour. New polls show that the SNP could, incredibly, win up to 52 seats in Scotland. This would give them a very good chance at joining government after the election. The SNP, unlike the two main parties, have long been opposed to Trident, and it is conceivable that the SNP could demand disarmament as part of any deal with Labour. That’s why, as Bruce Kent, veteran CND campaigner puts it “the elections are a great opportunity,” he said. “The price of… votes [for MPs] has to be Trident.” Even if they can’t get Trident completely scrapped, the SNP could demand that the Trident base is at least moved away from its current Scottish location at Faslane near Glasgow. In fact, rumours are already circulating that the UK government is making secret contingency plans for such an outcome, and the nukes could be moved to Wales, if the SNP end up in a position to demand it.Why are we so attached to Trident in the first place, when so many comparable and successful western countries don’t feel the need for nukes at all? For me, the Trident programme is emblematic of a post-imperial United Kingdom which still wants to flex its muscles on the world stage, but isn’t sure how to do it beyond some vague old-fashioned notion of military might. As Shahrar Ali, Deputy leader of the Green party, put it in his speech at the Wrap-up Trident march, Trident is the ultimate ‘big boys toy’ – invisible to radar, capable of creating 1000 Hiroshimas, silent, sleek and deadly – an amazing feat of military engineering. 63% of the British public, in a recent YouGov poll, said they wanted Britain to aspire to be a ‘great power’. Do we really need an eye-wateringly expensive killing machine to be a ‘great power’? If by power we mean influence, then arguably the two countries which have exercised the most influence on the European and world economies in the last year are Germany and Saudi Arabia, neither of which are nuclear states. State power today derives from diplomatic ties, natural resources, and trading clout. The fact that we, along with our American allies, have our Trident ‘deterrent’ has done nothing to deter Putin from provocations in Chechnya, Georgia, Crimea, Ukraine and even, recently, in the UK’s airspace. And all the nukes in the world will do nothing to deter the murderous actions of ISIS.
I hope we can find a way of making Britain ‘great’ without arming ourselves with more costly WMDs – surely greatness means more than that. This is an important issue which more people should engage with, yet in our very British tradition we defer to the Elites and ‘experts’ on issues of national security and absolve ourselves of responsibility. One can only hope that in the forthcoming highly unpredictable election campaign and the potential negotiations which may come after, the nuclear taboo is broken.