“We’ve got to have this thing over here whatever it costs… We’ve got to have the bloody Union Jack flying on top of it.”
Clement Attlee’s foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin, catalysed the British nuclear age with these words, resulting in the United Kingdom becoming the world’s third nuclear power in 1952. It was Attlee’s Labour administration that decided that the UK should develop its own nuclear weapons, in the context of a dangerous and uncertain world. The world we live in today is no less dangerous and the United Kingdom’s possession of nuclear weapons is just as vital as it was in the post-war period. The recent parliamentary debate on the renewal of Trident has resulted in much media attention on our nuclear deterrent and the, frankly, nonsensical arguments in favour of unilateral nuclear disarmament. These woefully idealistic arguments, spearheaded by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn (amongst others), offer a stark contrast to the pragmatic approach of the Labour leadership in the 1940s to the security challenges that we faced, alongside the role and responsibilities of our nation.
A third world war would have killed millions of people.
The United Kingdom possesses these lethal weapons to act as a deterrent against foreign powers that may wish to attack us or undermine our national security. It is the most efficient and effective insurance policy that we as a country have. A third world war would have killed millions of people. The threat of mutually assured destruction (MAD) that resulted from both NATO and the USSR developing and deploying nuclear weapons is largely responsible for preventing a third horrific military conflict on continental Europe. The effectiveness of nuclear deterrence is not just evidenced by preventing war in Europe and safeguarding the British state. More recently, both India and Pakistan’s possession of nuclear weapons has deterred major conflict between them, most notoriously illustrated by the 2001-2002 India-Pakistan standoff which saw the mobilisation of 800,000 soldiers on the border between the two nations. The threat of nuclear retaliation and MAD prevented a bloody conflict between two of the world’s largest armed forces and, ultimately, contributed to the eventual de-escalation of the crisis. The effectiveness of our nuclear deterrent, particularly against similarly armed states, such as Russia, is pivotal to our continued security and our ability to combat all conceivable threats.
Of course, Britain’s status as a nuclear power does not solve or deter all threats that we face. It did not deter the authoritarian military junta of Argentina’s Leopoldo Galtieri invading the Falkland Islands in 1982. The use of nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear weapons state would in most circumstances be considered by democratic states to be politically and morally unacceptable. It is important to consider, however, that if Britain did not posses nuclear weapons in 1982 and the bloody, authoritarian regime of Galtieri did possess tactical nuclear weapons (to be deployed on the battlefield), the retaking of the islands and the liberation of British citizens would have been impossible.
Furthermore, nuclear weapons cannot prevent threats such as terrorism, cyber crime, global warming or epidemics. The ineffectiveness of nuclear weapons against such threats is often erroneously trumpeted as reasons to unilaterally disarm by those that advocate such foolish action. Whilst nuclear weapons cannot themselves solve these issues, they do substantially enhance our global position, ensuring that the United Kingdom can punch above its weight and continue to maintain a seat at the top table when dealing with international crisis and these very threats. Additionally, the threat from nuclear-armed states, particularly Russia, has not disappeared – illuminated by the aggression shown by Putin in Crimea, his frequent sabre-rattling and mock nuclear-strike exercises against western nations. It is essential that we maintain the capability to deter further aggression.
It is incontrovertible that possessing nuclear weapons enhances our global strength and position. It is one of the bedrocks of the ‘special relationship’ between the United Kingdom and the United States (to unilaterally disarm would cause significant damage to our most powerful strategic partnership), underlines our position as NATO’s second big power and is vital for maintaining our position as one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (the other four all being recognised nuclear powers). To unilaterally disarm would significantly reduce our influence in the world and would jeopardise our seat on the UNSC. This was remarked upon by Angus Robertson, leader of the SNP at Westminster, who flippantly dismissed the government’s commitment to Trident as a folly designed (among other things) to maintain our seat on the UNSC.
This represents a dangerous disregard for the UK’s present ability (through the UNSC) to influence change at the highest international level and to highlight and prioritise important issues such as climate change and world poverty, often forgotten by other leading powers. Following the UK’s decision to leave the EU, our membership of the UNSC and NATO are the cornerstones of our engagement with the international community. In the post-Brexit world, it is of tremendous importance that we continue to engage with our allies, shoulder our global responsibilities and continue to be a force for good in the world. To unilaterally disarm would further signify, to the delight of Vladimir Putin, that the UK is turning its back on the world.
In an ideal world there would be no nuclear weapons. We do not, however, live in an ideal world and the thought of a nuclear-free world is a distant prospect. An increasingly belligerent Russia has been upgrading its already considerable nuclear capabilities and North Korea has continued to pursue an increasingly sophisticated nuclear programme, in violation of several UN resolutions. This is juxtaposed by the UK’s recent commitment to reduce the number of warheads deployed on a Vanguard Submarine from 48 to 40. Indeed, the UK has less than half the number of nuclear warheads than it possessed in the 1970s. Such moves have not been reciprocated across the world, highlighting the improbability of multilateral nuclear disarmament. The fact that the UK currently possesses nuclear weapons gives it greater gravitas and influence in arms reduction talks. To unilaterally disarm would be grossly irresponsible. Many countries that signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) did so on the understanding that they would be protected by states such as the UK and the NATO nuclear umbrella. To unilaterally disarm would be turning our back on our allies and those who look to us for protection.
To unilaterally disarm is an idea rooted in idealism and devoid of pragmatism.
It is unequivocally clear that Britain’s nuclear deterrent is the ultimate insurance policy. At a cost of just 6 per cent of the UK’s annual defence budget over the coming decades, our national security and influence in the world will be safeguarded. To unilaterally disarm is an idea rooted in idealism and devoid of pragmatism. The UK punches well above its weight globally, enabling it to be a force for change and of good in the world. This, alongside our national security, must be protected. The world we live in is dangerous and uncertain; nobody can fully foresee the threats that we will face in 30 or 50 years time. It is essential that we are prepared for any challenge and, therefore, it is vital that the UK continues to retain a continuous, at sea, nuclear deterrent.