When Yeats first mused his maxim “out of the quarrel with others we make rhetoric and out of the quarrel with ourselves we make poetry“, it was half a century before the quarrel with others could lead to a nuclear holocaust. As someone who has spent his entire 65 years under the prospect of just that, I used to hold in high regard those who argued forcibly against such a demise for humankind and against the insistence of the MoD that the UK must have such weapons to retain military credibility in the world and “a seat at the top table”, as embodied in membership of the UN’s security council.
Given British history in the first half of the 20th century, there is definitely an argument for staying alert militarily and avoiding the old soldier mistake of forever preparing for the last war so you always start the next one off-balance. Victorian Britain thought only in terms of small colonial wars, supported by global hegemony at sea. Its tiny Edwardian army was all but wiped out in Flanders by the massive German mobilisation of 1914. Its acceptance of the French fixation with Maginot defences almost led to a similar wipeout over the same ground in 1940; only both sides’ imperfect grasp of air power and much courage among sailors rescued most of the BEF from Dunkirk.
Having been caught twice in 25 years with their military trousers round their ankles, it is understandable that the MoD pushed for nuclear deterrence post WW2, especially as the Russian threat appeared palpable and imminent with the advent of the Iron Curtain. But with British global abilities questioned by communists from Cyprus to Malaya, insurgent efforts like the Kenyan Mau Mau springing up all over the globe and the absolute public humiliation of Suez underscoring a new impotence on the world stage, the writing should have been on the wall from 1956 onward. Both India and the vital Gulf oil reserves—the only economic rationale left for a global military reach—was already long out of British direct control.
Yet, not only were the V-bombers developed to thunder off into the skies in pairs with nuclear warheads as a puny Strangelove-esqe attempt to ape the USAF’s SAC ever-ready strike ability but millions were squandered on our own Blue Steel and Blue Streak ICBMs until they were scrapped and a virtue made of necessity by buying in first the US Polaris and then the Trident nuclear missiles to fit on a new submarine fleet. During the Cold War, too few people were asking questions—not about their efficacy, but about the entire rationale of their existence. The doubters were dismissed as mostly long-haired CND and hippy types, laced with intellectuals but including—to its credit—the Labour party.
The UK Nuclear ‘deterrent’ about which so much fuss has been made might still be fully capable of Armageddon all by itself but its rationale is a sickly thing. At the height of the Cold War, the US/Soviet race might also have been madness but superpowers of hundreds of millions of people deploying economies of trillions of dollars can indulge in such exercises in futility and still prosper. Britain, on the other hand, was trudging to the IMF by 1975, cap in hand. Had WW3 ever started, the US & Soviets would have reduced the entire planet to uninhabitable slag. What role the UK nukes could play in that, other than make the rubble dance higher was never made clear.
Worse than that, the chances of the UK ever deploying its nukes unilaterally is something the US has made sure cannot happen without their say-so. And, even were that not the case, at what point in the half-century of their existence could they have been deployed? Global hotspots like Hungary (1956) or Israel (1967/1973) or Vietnam (1966-73) were all American-dominated, as were Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan where the UK was involved. Even in the latter cases, had we wanted to use nukes against a tangible enemy, they made no tactical sense, quite apart from the moral opprobrium that would have swiftly followed any such use.
Even in purely British operations like Aden/Yemen in the sixties, nukes were useless against a guerilla force and although the Falklands was a ‘proper’ war against a ‘real’ country, nobody on either side considered for a minute that the Rio Gallagos air base was going to be nuked, let alone Buenos Aires. If nukes are a deterrent, then the question that has yet to be answered is ‘against what?’ The terrorist bombs of 7/7? Just as useless as the US arsenal, including SAC, ICBMs AND fifteen carrier groups were against 9/11.
All this makes argument for any nuclear devices by a civilised society militarily bankrupt. But, more importantly, the argument against nuclear weapons in a civilised society is so incontrovertible that it is a flat choice: nuke-armed or civilised—you can’t be both. It is the much more serious global equivalent of the argument against guns in the light of Sandy Hook or Dunblane or any of the other atrocities committed by gun owners who all claimed a need for ownership of equipment whose only practical use is to kill.
But even if the ‘self-defence against criminals’ justification for guns so often deployed in the States were not scuppered by the fact that far more family members and friends wind up being shot than any evil burglar, at least there is a limit to the damage. Were any nuclear warhead fired anywhere near either the US or Russia, they would shoot first and any questions asked later would be lost in the radioactive dust clouds that would circle the entire planet for 24,000 years (the half-life of Pu-239).
What triggered this outburst is an article in the Grauniad from two MPs who should know better and who underscore how far the Labour party has drifted from its moral roots. Angela Smith and John Woodcock argue for the retention of Trident and its replacement for what can only be described as economic grounds. Other than being PPS to Yvette Cooper and having questionable expenses, there seems no reason for Ms Smith’s contribution, other than from conviction (and jobs at Sheffield Forgemasters). Mr Woodcock, on the other hand, represents Barrow-in-Furness where the subs are built and so can be said to have an interest. Their argument?
“Those who understandably question this spending when money is tight should keep in mind that the cost of building the new submarines would give a near-unique bang for buck in boosting advanced UK manufacturing and creating highly skilled hi-tech jobs here in Britain.”
Ah, so Rolls Royce don’t create highly skilled high-tech jobs building half the world’s jet engines and Weir Pumps don’t do the same supplying the world with high-pressure systems? Smith & Woodcock (NOT Wesson!) demonstrate all the foresight of a learning-impaired dodo. Had this been 1913, they would have argued for investment in buggy-whips so that the Empire’s horse carriages would not fall behind; in 1963, they would have argued for massive investment in the North British Locomotive Company, whose steam engines were second to none. Now, in 2013, they argue the close-to-bankrupt UK “should focus on the £12bn to £17bn still to pay in the 20 years after the next election”.
And, lest we think these are two renegade thinkers—such as the old Labour party once produced in quantity, the article itself declares total orthodoxy of policy credentials:
“Labour under Ed’s leadership would never hand a gift to opponents by opting for a plan that might look fine in a Liberal Democrat election leaflet.”
It is simultaneously alarming and depressing for thinking people to live in a country whose government believes a chest-butting, my-nuclear-arsenal-can-beat-up-your-nuclear-arsenal diplomacy has any place in the 21st century. It is worse that a once-morally sentient opposition has sunk to similar sabre-rattling stupidity. But, most appalling of all, the best argument the dodos can deploy for squandering £17bn on such total uselessness (rather than, say, running ALL of Scotland’s 150 hospitals for FIVE YEARS) is it would support good jobs in their constituencies.
Call me old-fashioned but, having spent the last 20 years of my life hoping people would swallow their cynicism and trust politicians to have both a vision and the best interests of their constituents at heart, the noise you hear is humble pie merging with my cake-hole: in this case, I hope the people in Sheffield and Barrow throw these two clowns out for the short-sighted dodos that they are.
Either that, or that sound is poor Poseidon, drowning under the unwieldy weight of his new budget-busting trident,