On Friday, the issue of Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent reared its ugly head in this election. All the main UK political parties are in fact committed to its renewal. However, Jeremy Corbyn, a lifelong campaigner for nuclear disarmament, was pilloried for refusing to clarify whether under any circumstances he might be prepared to use it. I must confess I have probably flipflopped over this issue more than any other during the past nearly 40 years. However, I would suggest if the need for our own nuclear deterrent still has (or ever had) any currency it is hugely overvalued. Its perceived importance derives from outdated and exaggerated myths. It does nothing to safeguard us from the real threats we face. And its costs could be much better spent elsewhere.
Our public services, including our armed forces, security services and police, are currently under such severe strain that they are increasingly unfit for purpose. Yet we face the constant threat of terrorism as so tragically brought home to us in Manchester and only last night on London bridge. We no longer have adequate naval assets to protect the one little bit of the UK that is under potential threat of invasion, the Falklands. We do not even have enough naval vessels to safeguard Trident’s security, frequently relying on our allies to ward off snooping Russian vessels. We and our most cherished public services are under daily cyber-attack from terrorists, hostile foreign government and cyber vandals. Trident helps protect us from none of these threats.
In that context to waste about £130 billion on an independent nuclear deterrent (that is neither truly independent nor deterring anyone) is a bit like a man buying a tank as the ultimate security advice for his home. His roof is leaking, his windows broken and his front door coming off its hinges. His burglar alarm system hasn’t been serviced for years and he hasn’t renewed his computer virus software. But hey! he’s got a big tank.
Britain’s so called independent nuclear deterrent did not deter Argentina invading British territory in 1982 and neither did it prevent terrorists bombing London in 2005 or Manchester last month. It is a very expensive paper tiger. In our post-cold war era it deters no one and it actually increases rather than reduces the risks we face.
Stateless terrorists (even if they call themselves a state) by definition cannot be deterred by them because they have no state they could be used against. The only other supposed aggressor we face is Russia. Russia’s recent incursions in Ukraine and Syria and surveillance of UK waters provide no evidence of any intention to invade western Europe. (Its history is of being invaded by rather than invading Western Europe). It reflects instead its own exaggerated fears of threats it perceives; from Islamic terrorists and from the West’s maintenance of a nuclear arsenal apparently still aimed at her and its encroaching influence and control over her previous Eastern European allies. China’s only interest is an economic rather than military invasion of the UK and North Korea do not have the means to reach us and even if they did would target South Korea, Japan or the USA.
Even if there is some residual value in a nuclear deterrent, the reality is that without our own nuclear weapons like the similarly non-nuclear Germany, Italy, Spain and Holland we would have the benefit of NATO’s huge nuclear umbrella provided by the USA. It is part of what we pay our NATO insurance premium for. Any (currently unforeseeable) future military invader would be coming from the East of us and would have to invade quite a lot of territory before they reached the UK, including other allied NATO countries, each invasion liable to trigger a massive nuclear backlash from the USA.
In fact, our own nuclear submarines if anything slightly increase rather than reduce the security threats we face. As the Trident “martyr” William McNeilly can testify, the security of submarines themselves is less than perfect. With the expected development of underwater drone technologies over the next thirty years of Trident’s lifetime, their security will only reduce further. Given the determined terrorist threats we face they are potentially an ambitious (but not impossible) target for terrorists who would dearly love to infiltrate those subs and use them against us with cataclysmic consequences. The existence of our own nuclear weapons therefore should make us sleep less not more easily in our beds at night.
The billions saved from renewing Trident lhowever should be redirected into defence and security assets that we actually need- increasing the numbers of our armed forces, security services and police, increasing our investment in conventional naval and other military hardware and cyber technology. Investing in assets that will actually serve meaningful purposes. Our armed services are not just there to guard British territory from invasion, but are called upon in times of national crisis e.g. recently after floods and acts of terrorism. They also help fulfil our international commitments to provide humanitarian assistance and where appropriate engage in joint military action with our allies. Trident can help with none of that.
International military action abroad must be seen as a last resort and we must not repeat our recent mistakes in Iraq and Libya. However, there could yet be exceptional situations where such intervention is justified (as it was previously in Kosovo). Given the continuing threat of Islamic State it is not beyond the realms of possibility that at some point we will need to directly engage with their forces on the ground. We need to have the personnel and conventional military hardware to do that rather than wasting money on an irrelevant nuclear weapons system that would never be used.
Contrary to popular myth, I believe Britain’s unilateral nuclear disarmament would be an enhancement not an abandonment of our international leadership role. Whilst we may never get to a point where NATO can safely abandon all its nuclear weapons, the less of these weapons of mass destruction that exist the safer the world will be. The West looks increasingly hypocritical in preaching against nuclear proliferation when no Western nation has abandoned its own nuclear weapons. The more nations have these weapons the more widespread the fear of other nations that these dreadful weapons might be used against them and therefore some of those nations will seek to acquire them too. The more nations that have them the greater the risk that they might actually be used whether by mistake or by malice. One of the original nuclear powers abandoning their nuclear weapons gives other nations a lead away from this cycle of nuclear escalation.
On this (as on many other issues) I believe Jeremy Corbyn will be proved right when many of us have been wrong.