Renewing Trident: a letter to my Labour MP

I very much appreciate the trouble you have gone to in writing so fully to all members of your (and my) constitutency party to explain your vote on 14 March in support of the government's decision to renew Trident.  I am sure that the arguments for this in your letter constitute the best case that can be made for this policy.  But, like very many other members of the Labour Party, including  95 of your fellow Labour parliamentarians and a dozen who abstained, I don't believe that the arguments stand up.

You "maintain that having an independent nuclear deterrent is necessary…some believe that we could rely on the United States or France to protect us, but this would make an independent foreign policy harder to sustain."  But our nuclear deterrent is already (and will remain) wholly dependent on American technology and it is inconceivable that we could ever use it, or even credibly threaten to use it, against the wishes of the US government, so it's wrong to describe it as an "independent" nuclear deterrent, or to suggest that it enables us to avoid having to "rely on the United States to protect us".  If ever we are again exposed to the threat of nuclear attack against Britain by another state, we shall be every bit as reliant on the US for our protection as, for example, Germany or Italy which have no nuclear deterrent of their own, 'independent' or otherwise.  If they feel that they can maintain their security without any need for a separate national nuclear deterrent, why can't we?

The fact is that retaining our not-independent nuclear deterrent makes us more, not less, dependent on US foreign policy and on retaining the good will of every future American government.  It actually reduces our scope for developing a genuinely independent foreign policy, something that has become increasingly obviously necessary since the Iraq débacle.  In any case, complete independence is no longer available in this globalised world for any one country, even for the global super-power.  We should be accepting and welcoming our interdependence within the European Union.  Perpetuating our nuclear deterrent with its dependence on the United States is potentially inconsistent with that.

It has been widely pointed out that all the arguments that have been advanced for retaining and upgrading the British nuclear deterrent and its delivery platform are equally valid for every country in the world that does not currently possess nuclear weapons:  and if even a tenth of those countries acted on those arguments to justify proceeding to the development of their own nuclear deterrents against the remote possibility of unforeseeable future circumstances requiring them for their own security, non-proliferation would be a lost cause.

But the principal and little-recognised argument against this huge waste of public money — £15bn-£20bn on current predictions, certain to be much more in practice — is that it's irrational to try to guard against every possible future contingency, however remote and unlikely, on the grounds that (in your own words) it's "just not possible to predict with any accuracy the global security environment of the next 50 years."  This is risk-aversion taken to lunatic extremes.  It is impossible to construct a credible scenario in which any state in the next 50 years will be deterred from attacking the UK with nuclear weapons by fear of exclusively British nuclear retaliation.  Plenty of non-state actors (terrorists being the most likely) might well wish to attack us, perhaps one day with nuclear weapons, but such groups or individuals can't be deterred by our nuclear deterrent, for obvious reasons. 

The likelihood of our nuclear deterrent actually deterring a nuclear attack on Britain by another state in the next 50 years must be roughly equivalent to the likelihood of London being struck by a giant meteor, or of large areas of Britain being swamped by flooding due to global warming and a rise in ocean levels, or of half the population of Britain being killed by an avian flu pandemic — indeed, nearly all these are several times likelier to happen than the threat of nuclear attack by another state.  Yet any politician who advocated spending 20 or 30 billions of pounds on protective measures against every single one of these potential threats to our security would be regarded as being out of his mind. 

The rational response to a potential future threat is to ensure that the cost (financial and in terms of disruption to ordinary life) of defensive measures is roughly in proportion to the likelihood of the threat materialising.  In the case of deterring a threat of nuclear attack by another state, that likelihood is now so low that the diversion of at least 20 billion pounds of the defence budget into guarding against it is sheer madness.

This is just the latest example of this government's flabby and irrational reaction to any future risk, however remote.  Occasional remarks by Mr Blair have revealed the reason for this.  He and his ministerial colleagues are consumed by the fear that if any single one of these risks materialises, they might be accused of having failed to act in advance to protect us against it, through complacency or indolence.  So they are driven to accumulate a log of activity designed to protect them from blame if almost any of a million unpleasantnesses should occur:  a foreigner who has served his term in prison and been released commits a murder;  a man with an untreatable and indefinable mental illness but no previous history of aggressive behaviour attacks a woman;  a man suspected of being associated with terrorists, but against whom no evidence of wrong-doing exists to sustain a prosecution, explodes a bomb on a tube train;  a child falls off a trampoline;  a passer-by hits his head on a hanging flower-basket;  a schoolgirl gets lost on a mountainside during a school outing;  a demented fanatic threatens an air stewardess with a small pair of household scissors; a non-smoking barman in a pub that allows smoking dies of lung cancer.  Action must be taken to avoid blame in case any single one of these, or thousands of other potential 'threats', should ever materialise, regardless of the assault on our traditional civil liberties and the interference in our everyday lives that such action is liable to entail.  The waste of £20 billion or more of our money on Trident is just the latest and craziest of these disproportionate responses to almost inconceivable future risks. 

The British 'independent nuclear deterrent' is not independent.  There is no-one for it to deter.  No-one would believe in our willingness or ability to use it without Washington's permission, so it adds nothing to the American nuclear deterrent.  It gives our political leaders delusions of grandeur and a dangerous illusion of possessing non-existent power and influence.  It undermines the possibility of developing an independent foreign policy in conjunction with our EU partners.  The likelihood of our needing it in the foreseeable future is so remote as not to warrant further expenditure on it.  We don't and shan't need it, and it does us more harm than good.

I am sorry to write at such length, but I felt that your comprehensive letter in defence of the government's policy deserved an equally comprehensive reply.

2 Responses

  1. John Miles says:

    I agree with just about your every word, but there are one or two points about the Trident argument I'm not yet altogether comfortable about.

    First, the obvious question is, "Would any circumstances ever justify our actually using nuclear weapons?"

    Most people think it more or less axiomatic that everyone has the right to defend themselve against an aggressor. So one answer might be, "What if Ruritania, for example, were to launch a nuclear strike against us? Wouldn't we be entitled to use our nukes to defend ourselves?"

    Well, would we?

    Many people might think so, but could retaliation involving such indiscrimanate slaughter ever really be justified?

    And what good would it do us or, anybody else, anyway?

    Second, the "deterrent" argument: "Ruritania would never launch a strike against us for fear our Tridents would instantly retaliate against them."

    This implies the Ruritanians are more or less rational. Would any rational person, in this day and age, ever even think about starting a nuclear war?

    And isn't it just a question of time before the boffins find out – if they haven't found out already – how to locate our Tridents, so that they can take them out before they have a go at us?

    Would some Trident supporter please answer these questions?

    Brian writes: Since Trident is supposed to be our deterrent, the question is not 'In what circumstances would we use a nuclear weapon?', but 'In what circumstances might a state planning a nuclear attack on Britain be deterred from launching it by the fear that Britain — not the United States on Britain's behalf, but specifically Britain — might just possibly retaliate using nuclear weapons in reply?'  It seems impossible to construct even a far-fetched scenario in which that is within the realms of the possible to the extent required to justify the expendirure of som £76 billion to guard against it.  But pro-Trident enthusiasts may be able to think up something plausible?  

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