Our Plan for Nuclear Weapons: Give Them Away

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At least nuclear bombs make a good splash.

The Labour Party are divided over the renewal of Trident, and Corbyn has been widely criticised for his weakness in promoting disarmament. But if Britain is serious about maintaining an effective nuclear deterrent then that’s exactly what we must do.

When he was Prime Minister Tony Blair used to say that nuclear bombs gave Britain international credibility. It was probably the same argument that Al Capone used to justify his latest stash of machine guns, but Britain’s paltry single operational nuclear submarine makes us look as if we’ve turned up to a Hell’s Angel convention on a moped. Russia and America have 14,000 warheads between them, the UK has 120 and using them without American direction is inconceivable. The argument that we need an “independent” nuclear deterrent may still cut the mustard in those golf clubs that still refuse women, but if we ever really had military independence those days are long gone.

Ironically, had Jewish scientists not fled Germany when Hitler became Chancellor in 1933 then Germany would have become the world’s first superpower. However, America got there first, Russia a few years later, Britain in 1952 and then France and China in the early 1960s. Today there are still only nine countries with the capacity to detonate nuclear bombs, but only Russia and America can genuinely say that they hold them as a defence of last resort. Therefore they are the only two countries with a legitimate excuse to have them.

Britain’s nuclear arsenal is tiny, but it comes at a high price. The cost is eye-watering to say the least – although that would be the least of your problems if one was actually set off. CND estimates that the lifetime cost of renewing Trident is at least £205 billion, although an independent analysis by Reuters puts it at £167 billion. Either way it would pay for well over 100 new state-of-the-art hospitals and an additional 150,000 nurses: it might even cover the cost of doctors working on Saturdays! In terms of military spending it is huge and when our ground forces complain that they are deprived of adequate resources it is difficult not to make the connection. Even in America increasing numbers of generals are coming round to the view that Britain cannot afford to be a nuclear power anymore. They believe a more useful military partnership would be one where we did the simple things properly – although arguing that one sort of killing machine is better than another is not really the point I want to make.

In fairness virtually all MPs want fewer nuclear weapons but they want to achieve this through “multilateral” disarmament – the principle of decommissioning only if and when other countries do the same. With no prospect of that happening MPs recently voted by a large majority to renew Trident, extending its life to at least 2060. But to make a legitimate argument against nuclear proliferation middle-ranking countries like Britain must abandon the claim that nuclear weapons are essential for reasons of “national security”.  If it was only America and Russia that held nuclear weapons it would be much more practical to enforce the disarmament of rogue states such as North Korea. Britain should therefore cancel the renewal of Trident and hand over our existing warheads to NATO – giving us the moral authority to encourage the other six minor nuclear powers to do the same.

In doing so our ties with America would be strengthened. Unilateral disarmament wouldn’t leave Britain undefended or even reduce the West’s nuclear capacity, it would mean that the financial burden of defence would be borne by a broader group of countries and that Britain could spend more money on conventional forces. Our troops would no longer turn up to overseas engagements feeling like the poor relation and British soldiers would not have to die because of cuts in the defence budget or sub-standard equipment. It is clearly absurd that Germany, Italy, Scandinavia, Canada, Australia and dozens of allied counties should expect nuclear protection without contributing to the cost, yet whilst Britain retains Trident that’s exactly what happens.

Where Jeremy Corbyn is wrong is by not appreciating that the best case for unilateral disarmament is not in the argument for a nuclear free world – it’s about supporting the Americans and NATO in managing nuclear weapons more effectively.

It is Britain’s responsibility to support the nuclear option and to encourage all of our allies to do the same. We will do that most effectively by giving our own weapons away.