Renewing Trident – How about we don’t, and say we did?
Deciding how best to mitigate our hypothetical enemies is proving a thankless task, but we have to be honest about the reality of what we’re proposing.
With the SNP safely ensconced north of the border and an avowed nuclear disarmer now at the helm of Labour, the topic of renewing Trident refuses to retreat from mainstream debate. The Scottish nationalists are staunchly opposed to renewal, not only as a characteristic of their broadly progressive narrative but also – at least for its strength as emotive imagery – due to its geographical position on the Clyde. It was even alleged to be a potential deal-breaker for a post-election pact with Labour last May.
But what are the arguments for and against the renewal of Trident in particular? Well, at a purported cost of £100 billion over its duration, detractors of austerity have a handy option to cover the expense of alleviating spending cuts. This, coupled with the moral viewpoint that the UK should lead by example in nuclear disarmament, provides a compelling argument on behalf of the Greens, SNP and Plaid Cymru. Even prominent members of the armed forces have shown a preference for increased investment in conventional defence at the expense of Trident.
On the other hand we are in an age of geopolitical instability, peppered with the existential threat of Isis and a dash of Cold War revivalism. This is the view which Miliband assumed for Labour during the election, though mainly his brief was to buffer the Tory accusations of selling out the security of the country – now aimed squarely at Corbyn – to Sturgeon and Co. In a complete reversion to type, the election saw Conservatives argue for the status quo, Labour agree purportedly out of necessity rather than ideology, Nick Clegg offer a compromise of partial renewal alongside reinvestment, and Ukip issue a series of contradictory viewpoints ranging from full renewal of Trident to replacing it with an entirely different system at an apparently lower cost.
Now, the best part of a year later, the debate rages on with the added friction of internal Labour disagreement. But there is one solution that has not been suggested which would effectively provide the best of both worlds: why don't we scrap Trident, but say we've renewed it?
The whole point of nuclear weapons is to never use them. The destructive capabilities they hold are entirely theoretical – 'if I nuke you, you'll nuke me, so let's not nuke each other'. But they are so expensive to maintain. Why don't we just claim Trident is being renewed, but get the engineers to simply deactivate and paint racing stripes on the missiles – at a fraction of the cost? Of course, they would have to be paid off to stay silent, and subsequently if this had happened we could never know about it.
Then again, would it be so bad if word got out? Even if rumours surfaced, nobody could be sure – it would be a bluff that Vladimir Putin himself would be proud of. 'Do I nuke them on the off-chance their nukes are fake?' It's pretty safe to assume that Putin himself has imaginary nukes, and no doubt the idea of the West spending hundreds of billions to out-gun him provides him with a constant source of amusement. In fact, the idea is so unashamedly effective and deviously brilliant (if I do say so myself) that it's possible, no, probable… certain that Tony Blair must have thought of it a decade ago.
It would certainly make sense if this was the case, and such a “have your cake and eat it” approach to nuclear weapons would explain Labour’s stance on Trident in the run up to the last election. Labour couldn’t possibly back the removal of Trident knowing that an incoming Labour government could not expect to benefit from any budget surplus. They would be quizzed on where the money was going – they would be exposed.
But unfortunately for them, even if this had been the case, their stance still smacked too much of Tory collusion. In-keeping with reversions to type, New Labour’s idea would have had a sound theoretical basis – and why not? People without dogs put up “beware of the dog” signs to deter would-be burglars – but would have been executed with poor regard for public opinion; the plan would have assumed that the additional spending generated would outweigh the widespread disapproval of war in the Middle East.
In spite of this theory, there is still every probability that Britain’s nuclear missile system is, in fact, currently fully operational and up for renewal, but the philosophical dilemma that this poses is no less absurd than the aforesaid bluff. Putting aside the economic implications of Trident renewal, and there are many, (if the Conservatives were not so committed to fiscal austerity, would the cost of their beloved missiles be under such scrutiny? Probably not…) it represents a material remedy to an existential threat.
Trident is only a deterrent to nuclear attack insofar as the attacker can expect a nuclear retaliation, but this does not protect citizens of any nation from the damage of nuclear warfare. The eventuality envisaged in the renewal of Trident is simply this: if some megalomaniac on the other side of the world decides one day to wipe out London, then they themselves shall be wiped out in return. Mutual destruction is assured – a suicide pact.
Consequently, the narratives of security and defence that surround the issue are somewhat misleading. Each of these terms implies a level of mitigation from the impact of an attack that simply does not exist in the case of a nuclear strike. To be clear, this is not a wholesale rejection of the merits of Trident renewal. In fact, my own opinion is that opposition parties should be pushing for NATO to take control of our nuclear arsenal – moving it out of the UK and sharing the cost (whilst ensuring jobs are protected). Or even to propose a referendum on the issue, or both. In any case, we must at least be honest about the terms of the debate. It’s a case of revenge, not defence.
In terms of a nuclear deterrent, two fundamental questions have largely been overlooked in the whole discussion: firstly, would somebody driven to carry out an attack on such a scale really be so concerned with their own life, and the lives of their people, to be dissuaded from doing so? Maybe… But we can’t expect such a person to regard human life all too highly. Furthermore, could an unarmed Britain not rely on its allies for support in the event of such a catastrophe? Sure, we’d still be relying vicariously on a nuclear deterrent, but such a thing exists with or without Trident, just for free, and surely any fewer WMDs in the world is a step in the right direction?
When all is said and done though, and the sky above Westminster lights up in a blistering red, will we be able to look into the eyes of our loved ones, seconds before our incineration, and know that somewhere in North Korea, Iran, Russia, or whichever bogeyman regime we’re scared of at the time, millions more are to share our fate in the name of our tax-funded retribution? If so, how much is that worth? Would a bluff really be so ludicrous in its place?