Rebutting Tory attack lines: Trident nuclear weapons
by Ian Sinclair
21 November 2019
During Labour’s game changing 2017 general election campaign it is worth remembering one particularly difficult moment for Jeremy Corbyn – when he was questioned by the audience and presenter David Dimbleby about whether he would press the “nuclear button” during BBC Question Time’s Leader’s Special.
“Jeremy had begun to look uncomfortable,” Steve Howell, then Labour’s deputy director of strategy and communications, noted in his book about the campaign.
This challenging episode won’t have gone unnoticed by the other political parties, of course. Earlier this month the Guardian noted the Conservative’s 2019 general election campaign will target Labour seats “by painting Corbyn as a threat to national security.” Unsurprisingly, Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson was quick to mimic the Tories, launching her campaign by arguing the Labour leader “would be a threat to our national security”.
With these predictable attacks only set to get worse as polling day nears, it is worth reminding and arming ourselves with the facts and arguments against the UK’s Trident nuclear weapon system – which Corbyn has rightly opposed all of his political life.
First, it is important to highlight the sheer immorality of retaining and threatening the use of nuclear weapons. “In view of the fact any major nuclear exchange would create a nuclear winter that would kill most of humanity, it’s worth noting that the position that you would launch nuclear weapons is to the right of Thanos”, comedian Frankie Boyle tweeted recently about the fictional Marvel comics supervillain.
Boyle may well be referring to the 2013 report from the US organisation Physicians for Social Responsibility which argued a limited, regional nuclear war would significantly reduce yields of staple crops across the world, putting around two billion people at risk of famine. Which certainly puts Swinson’s assertion on Channel 4 News that should would press the button into perspective.
Second, Trident – often described as our “nuclear deterrent” – does not guarantee our so-called “national security”. Infact it likely makes the UK, and the rest of the world, less safe.
“Even though governments frequently invoke deterrence as a rationale for retaining nuclear weapons, its relevance has sharply diminished if not completely vanished”, concluded the 2006 Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission led by former Chief UN weapons inspector Hans Blix.
The concept of deterrence has a number of dangerous flaws: it is only a theory, and therefore cannot be proven; it requires effective communications between belligerents – the threat of a retaliatory strike must be relayed, understood and believed; and it requires decision makers to act rationally at times of extreme pressure. Writing in 2013, ex-Defence Secretary Des Browne notes “deterrence only works against those with a known address, it is not a viable strategy for meeting” threats such as cyber attacks or terrorism, including nuclear terrorism.
The ex-head of the UK armed forces Field Marshall Lord Bramall, General Lord Ramsbotham and General Sir Hugh Beach broadly agree, writing in the Times in 2009 that “nuclear weapons have shown themselves to be completely useless as a deterrent to the threats and scale of the violence we currently, or are likely to, face – particularly international terrorism.” Ten years later there is broad consensus the climate crisis is now the greatest threat the nation faces: “investing billions in nuclear weapons diverts funds away from addressing these priorities”, argues the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND).
Those arguing Trident makes the nation safer would do well to read the 2014 Chatham House report Too Close For Comfort: Cases Of Near Nuclear Use And Options For Policy. “The decades since 1945 have been punctuated by a series of disturbing close calls”, the report’s authors note, highlighting thirteen instances when nuclear weapons were perilously close to being used or accidentally detonated. “The probability of inadvertent nuclear use… is higher than had been widely considered”, they worryingly conclude.
Furthermore, the UK’s retention of Trident plays a key role in the proliferation of nuclear weapons – because it “might actively encourage others to believe that nuclear were still, somehow, vital to the secure defence of self-respecting nations”, argue Bramall, Ramsbotham and Beach. Browne agrees, arguing in 2013 that Trident renewal “will destroy any chance of building the broad-based international support required for a stronger non-proliferation and nuclear security regime.”
Third, the UK’s nuclear weapons are incredibly expensive – a 2016 CND study estimated the cost of replacing Trident at a massive £205 billion, while Crispin Blunt MP and Reuters assessed the cost to be £167 billion. Depending on your political priorities this money could be spent on any number of things, including boosting conventional military forces, international aid, peacekeeping or the UK’s stretched public services. As ex-Tory Defence Minister Michael Portillo said in 2015, the UK’s nuclear weapons are “a waste of money”.
Fourth, is the rarely discussed – in the mainstream media anyway – legal aspect. Britain is a signatory to the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), commonly referred to as a “grand bargain” between the then five nuclear weapon states and the non-nuclear weapon states. States without nuclear weapons promised to not acquire them, and states with nuclear weapons pledged to pursue disarmament. As the treaty text confirmed, “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”. CND argue this requirement was strengthened at the 2000 NPT Review Conference, which included 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. This was confirmed by Kofi Annan, when he spoke as the United Nations Secretary-General in 2006: “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.”
In addition to these four central criticisms, it is worth noting the UK’s nuclear weapons “cannot be seen as independent of the United States in any meaningful sense”, according to Bramall, Ramsbotham and Beach.
“Not only are Britain’s Trident missiles in a common pool shared with the US and maintained in Kings Bay, Georgia, its nuclear warheads are designed and maintained at the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston with the help of US know-how”, the Guardian’s Defence correspondent reported in 2014.
The independent all-party Trident Commission – co-chaired by Browne and former Tory Defence and Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind – confirmed as much in 2014: “If the United States were to withdraw their cooperation completely, the UK nuclear capability would probably have a life expectancy measured in months rather than years”.
Finally, it is worth remembering the broader global context: currently just nine nations possess nuclear weapons, which means 186 nations on earth do not. The uncomfortable truth is that by retaining its genocidal nuclear weapons the UK is an extreme outlier making the world more dangerous. It’s time the UK joined the rest of the world and started to work for a more peaceful, safer world. Electing a Labour government with Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister would be the first step on this vital journey.
Further reading: see CND’s Trident Mythbuster leaflet, https://cnduk.org/resources/trident-mythbuster/, and by Timmon Wallis’s book The Truth About Trident: Disarming the Nuclear Armament, published by Luath Press.
Tomorrow Ian will debunk the Tories’ likely attack lines on crime and punishment. Follow Ian on Twitter at @IanJSinclair.