Trident renewed

The WMD Blog

On 18 July, the British Parliament voted to maintain the United Kingdom’s nuclear-weapons capability for the foreseeable future.

By Kjølv Egeland
19 July 2016

The debate in the House of Commons consisted, as Orwell once wrote of political language in general, ‘largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.’

Britain’s nuclear submarines each carry up to 40 nuclear warheads, each warhead  estimated to be about ten times as powerful as the atomic bomb that killed approximately 100.000 people in Hiroshima. A ‘limited’ nuclear war could result in enough soot being thrown into the atmosphere to cause a ‘nuclear winter’ resulting in millions—if not billions—of people loosing their lives due to starvation.

Despite vocal opposition from civil society groups and some politicians, the decision to renew Trident was expected. As it played out, a large majority of parliamentarians, 355 to be exact, from both of the two largest parties, voted to retain weapons of mass destruction—euphemistically referred to as Britain’s ‘independent minimal credible nuclear deterrent’ or simply ‘the deterrent’—as a central beam in Britain’s security strategy.

While the result itself was expected, the rushed timing of the vote caught some people off guard. As several Members of Parliament pointed out, it was illogical to have the Trident debate before the ‘Scottish question’ was settled. Trident, after all, is based in Scotland, and Scotland, after all, is neither particularly keen on nuclear weapons nor on being part of the United Kingdom, especially not after the English voted to exit the European Union. The renewal of Trident, then, could have a paradoxical outcome: while Britain’s nuclear weapons are by some seen as a symbol of Britain’s alleged status as a ‘pivotal’, major power, the renewal of Trident could, as the Brexit vote undoubtedly has, increase the calls for Scottish independence and consequently the breakup of the United Kingdom.

According to Andrew Sparrow of The Guardian and several other commentators, the reason for the rushed timing of the vote was that the Tory leaders were eager to highlight divisions within the Labour Party. Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader who is a life-long supporter of nuclear disarmament, refused to make the official Labour case, which is that Trident is essential for Britain’s security. ‘I do not believe the threat of mass murder is an adequate way of dealing with international relations’, Corbyn argued instead.

Needless to say, pushing the Trident debate forward only to embarrass Labour Party politicians, if that really was the case, would be an incredibly frivolous way of dealing with a matter of genuinely global interest.

During the debate, Britain’s new Prime Minister, Theresa May, proved that while she might be a shrewd administrator, she has limited understanding of nuclear policy. Before the debate, she argued that not renewing Trident would be a ‘gross irresponsibility’. Such statements will not be overly pleasing to the overwhelming majority of the world’s states, to which the British government has repeatedly and solemnly promised to disarm. Britain, in fact, is under a legally binding obligation to ‘bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all aspects’; the British Parliament has now gone ahead and done exactly the opposite (as it happens, Britain has also boycotted UN talks on multilateral nuclear disarmament in Geneva throughout the year).

In the debate May went on to argue that Britain’s nuclear arsenal ‘is an insurance policy we [Britain] simply cannot do without.’ This statement will be interesting to the 184 states in the world that do not possess nuclear weapons. If Britain—a country with conventional military capabilities far superior to those of most states in the world—‘simply cannot do’ without nuclear weapons, surely there is a long list of countries in the world—many of which are not necessarily great friends of Britain—that also require nuclear weapons for their security. The Conservative Party leader, in other words, went out of her way to recommend that other states arm themselves with apocalyptic weaponry.

In justifying Britain’s need to possess nuclear weapons, Theresa May also strongly alluded that if it ever came to war, Britain could not rely on the support of her nuclear-armed allies the United States and France. This statement will have been extremely worrying to NATO’s non-nuclear-armed members. May, in effect, claimed that NATO’s member states should not rely on Article 5 of the NATO Treaty, which spells out that an attack on one is to be regarded as an attack on all. The British Prime Minister, then, not only recommended that Iran get the bomb, she also recommended that Turkey get it.

Of course, Theresa May did not really mean to incite proliferation. What she really meant was that Britain should have nuclear weapons but nobody else. Many British policy makers, and no doubt many voters, seem to take it completely for granted that Britain should have weapons that are illegal for others.

While British history includes praiseworthy initiatives such as the abolition of the slave trade (which came at a great economic cost), it also includes dark chapters such as the annexation of the lands, property, and lives of ‘inferior peoples’ in the Global South. In nuclear disarmament Britain had the chance to take normative leadership, to show the world that ‘British values’ are something more than a rhetorical devise, and that Britain has no right to hold the rest of the world hostage in order to feel safe. Instead, the British Parliament chose to listen to the totalitarian voices that say that the lives of others are for Brits to take.

The views set out in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of International Law and Policy Institute (ILPI).