Global disarmament is a lofty goal, and one that brings out starry eyed idealism, and the worst of twitchy paranoia, in many who argue about it. The most feared of global weapons also hold a strange place in the British psyche, frequently attached in the British mind-set to the global superpower status we desperately cling to, despite having long been left behind. The renewal of Britain’s Trident nuclear arsenal has once again recaptured the headlines with the election to Labour leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, a staunch advocate of disarmament, throwing him into conflict with his own party. But Corbyn is correct; it is absolutely right that the world must disarm, but it is a long road to this ambitious goal, and one that requires co-operation between all nuclear powers, including those who hold nuclear weapons outside of the nuclear disarmament treaty (India and Pakistan, and Israel, who still denies they even have them, despite damning evidence to the contrary). But with the eye-watering price tag of £167bn placed on the renewal of Britain’s nuclear arsenal (roughly equivalent to the entire GDP of Bangladesh), at a time when we are told the poorest in our society must bear the burden of ideological deficit reduction and austerity, it absolutely must be questioned whether a nuclear defence system is something Britain needs.
The first thing that must be mentioned is that it is unforgivable – and illegal under international law – to use nuclear weapons; the indiscriminate killing of innocent civilians can never be condoned, and Britain must recognise this immediately. It is worrying how often in the nuclear debate it must be mentioned that Britain should absolutely be committed to never using nuclear weapons under even the most extreme circumstances – and even more concerning how many people would actually disagree with this position.
Every time someone quietly brings up the subject of nuclear disarmament, it is immediately followed by hysterical posturing about ‘national security’ – see how long you can try and hold a sensible conversation before someone starts babbling about North Korea. This twitchy paranoia ignores the reality of the modern world, where a lot more than a hysterical fear of being melted by nuclear warheads prevents states from attacking each other with nuclear weapons. Firstly it is totally unacceptable, illegal under international law, and universally condemned to slaughter millions of innocent people in the blink of an eye. If villain-of-the-week Iran launched a nuclear warhead against a Western city, they would immediately become an outcast, sanctioned, probably invaded etc. The interconnectivity of the global system means it is not simply the threat of nuclear weapons holding anyone back from a nuclear strike, but also the implications of what would happen after. This situation is obviously more nuanced than a nuclear deterrent advocate might suggest. And Iran is also unlikely to launch a nuclear strike because, actually, they just don’t want to. Iran has nothing to gain from blasting nuclear weapons into the air in all directions. It is simply not in their interests (and let’s not forget they don’t actually have nukes anyway). Likewise, North Korea, the long-touted golden child of international hysteria, has nothing to gain from launching nuclear weapons at the West, which would immediately bring back a retaliation (not even a nuclear retaliation) that would spell its demise – they have a lot to gain from threatening nuclear action (both domestically and from the irrational hysteria they provoke across the world) but nothing to gain from actually following it through. No serious security analyst is expecting a North Korean nuclear strike.
This isn’t even an argument for long-term global disarmament, just an argument for Britain to give up its own stockpile. The reality is, if we ditched our weapons we would still remain defended by nukes, surely satisfactory to all but the most crazed of pro-nuclear weapon hawks. Britain remains in NATO, an organisation supported by two other nuclear-armed nations, France and the USA, who hold significant nuclear arsenals. If the protection from these states is enough for all other NATO countries, and all other non-nuclear states, then I feel fairly comfortable that we would remain nuclear protected, but at none of the cost. Why does Germany not feel the need to blow £167bn on nuclear weapons? Because the feel secure in their current position without them, of course. The British feel threatened at the thought of losing our weapons because we currently have them, but nobody in non-nuclear states feels like this – we must have the clarity to think about this from outside our own borders.
Britain’s disarmament would win praises across the world, and provide a shot in the arm to the faltering disarmament movement; abandoned by the nuclear powers in all but name. But there must be recognition in the modern era that nuclear weapons offer no defence against any of the major threats faced by Britain today; cyber-crime, terrorism, pandemics. And perhaps the greatest threat of all is from nuclear weapons themselves; one leaked diplomatic cable suggested the US had little knowledge of the security of Pakistan’s nuclear warheads, and noted that Islamic extremists “are not only seeking power in Pakistan but are also trying to get their hands on nuclear materials… There are still about 16,000 nuclear weapons in the world. Terrorists only need to steal one”. This is not a threat that can be defended against using the nuclear deterrent, but it is one that could be created by it. It is absolutely the case that the single biggest threat from nuclear weapons is that they might fall into the wrong hands.
Britain must get out of the Cold War mentality that leaves us ideologically clinging to our nuclear warheads, especially when our government is so hell-bent in their ideology that Britain’s poor are not worthy of state finance, but this vast nuclear arsenal is money well spent. Those arguing for British disarmament must fight back against the label of fuzzy hippyness attached to Corbyn; they include Tony Blair and Major General Patrick Cordingley, hardly the personification of flower-power idealism. Instead, we must champion pragmatism, and show the British people the reality of the global security landscape in the modern world, before this £167bn white elephant becomes a living, breathing beast.