Members of parliament are being asked to approve the replacement of the ballistic submarines that carry the United Kingdom’s nuclear deterrent. No doubt the Conservative government sees this as a golden opportunity to expose differences of opinion in the Labour party on the issue. Yet Trident shines a bright light on how serious we are about politics and political leadership. The electorate will be watching to see how all politicians tackle one of the most serious challenges of government.
This is a moral issue. It is either right, or at least the lesser evil, to maintain a functioning nuclear deterrent, or it is morally wrong. All other aspects of this debate concern assessments of security risks and political choices about spending. Trident matters so much because it is a most serious moral issue and nothing gets much more serious than nuclear weapons. It was a terrible thing when human beings invented atom and hydrogen bombs, such as those tested regularly by North Korea. They have the capacity to destroy millions of people. We can only shudder when we think of those intercontinental ballistic missiles, ranged against us and our fellow nations, as well as those we possess.
If only humanity had not invented the deep horror of nuclear weapons. But we cannot wind back the clock or avoid the moral responsibility. The moral question therefore is: how do we best prevent them being used, or being used to blackmail one nation by another?
The risks of a nuclear strike somewhere in the world have increased back to cold war levels, according to the Doomsday Clock, so it is not a relic from the past. The nuclear deterrent prevents another nation knocking us out with a nuclear attack. It helps boost Nato’s nuclear defence, with separate control which therefore raises the risk to an enemy. It insures us against declining American interest in European security. It also prevents further nuclear proliferation, for if we disarmed unilaterally other Nato allies might consider a nuclear option, and it gives us a stake in disarmament efforts. Finally, it protects us against nuclear blackmail of the kind implicitly used by Russia. Given the uncertainties and security concerns, and our responsibilities to others, giving up our nuclear deterrent for nothing carries high risks. Is that the moral thing to do?
There is an honourable case in favour of unilateral disarmament. It too focuses on the moral aspect, and concludes powerfully that possessing nuclear weapons in any circumstances is wrong. It is important to untangle this moral case from other arguments against replacing the submarines. For if you believe it is immoral for the UK to have nuclear weapons, you need to make the case for Trident to be decommissioned now. Anything else is an argument about strategy. Simply arguing that the submarines should not be replaced implies support for nuclear deterrent, since the current Vanguard class will remain on patrol, ready to fire if ordered, and acting as our deterrent for another 15 years or so. If another 15 years is acceptable, why not 20, or 30?
To give up nuclear weapons is also to argue for leaving Nato. If discontinuing Trident is a moral decision, we cannot simply remain under the United States’ nuclear umbrella without being open to the charge of moral hypocrisy. It does not get us far morally. We are back to judgements about security and risk.
Unilateralists need to show how disarmament will improve our security, now and over the next few decades. If the case is that unilateral disarmament will encourage others to do the same, credible evidence must be presented. How will Russia or North Korea become less of a threat and on what grounds? An assertion that they will is not sufficient for a serious issue such as this, when the security of the nation is at stake.
Emily Thornberry and Clive Lewis argue surprisingly that ‘there are many cheaper alternatives than building the full complement of replacement submarines, but they have never been seriously explored under any government.’ This is the cost argument, which accepts that nuclear weapons are necessary but balks at the cost. After all, one cannot make a moral case against the nuclear deterrent and then argue you would change your mind if it were a bit cheaper. What matters of course is cost effectiveness. Overall, can we guarantee the UK would be safer without Trident?
The nuclear alternatives have been examined extensively over the years. Trident does cost a lot, but less than building new nuclear systems that would provide equivalent, or less, security and, to put it in context, the cost per annum is arguably within the margin of error for forecasts of the government’s annual deficit. It also contributes to employment; not an equivalent argument against a moral case for unilateralism but one which matters otherwise.
In Labour we have a vision for the world as we want it to be and this drives our politics. We also need to apply our principles to the world as we find it, not as we wish it were already. We should not be debating Trident or submarine renewal in the first instance. We should be debating, in comradely fashion, how we can morally and best practically protect the citizens of this country over the next 30 or 40 years. How do we fulfil our responsibilities to the world? How do we contribute to multilateral disarmament? How do we prevent nuclear blackmail?
Can we be sure that discontinuing our deterrent would be the moral thing to do? Would that make us, and the world, safer? We cannot be sure today and we cannot take the risk, for ourselves, our children, or grandchildren. Until we can be sure, we should maintain a fully functioning continuous nuclear deterrent.
Photo: UK Parliament
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