Despotism or Democracy?

As the 2015 general election and the decision on whether to replace Trident approaches, it is important to consider the implications of the continued possession of nuclear weapons for British democracy. Historically, Britain’s bomb has been dependent on US support, a relationship notable for its opacity and lack of democratic accountability. According to researchers Nicola Butler and Mark Bromley, co-operation takes place ‘under the 1958 Agreement for Co-operation on the use of Atomic Energy for Mutual Defence Purposes (MDA) and a range of related agreements, amendments and Memoranda of Understanding, many of which are still classified’. The MDA allows the US to provide the UK with nuclear weapons designs, nuclear weapons manufacturing and nuclear reactor technology, designs and materials. The last time the agreement was renewed, in 2004, observers noted how the UK Government ratified it ‘without any select committee scrutiny or parliamentary debate’. Furthermore, lawyers stated that it was ‘strongly arguable’ that renewal of the MDA would put the UK in breach of its obligations under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT). The MDA is due for renewal in 2014 and must be subject to an open and public debate with MPs able to fully consider the implications of the agreement.

Looking more widely, Daniel Deudney, an American political scientist, has discussed how nuclear weapons are ‘intrinsically despotic’ and have created ‘nuclear monarchies’ in all nuclear-armed states. Deudney identifies three related reasons for this development: ‘the speed of nuclear use decisions; the concentration of nuclear use decision into the hands of one individual; and the lack of accountability stemming from the inability of affected groups to have their interests represented at the moment of nuclear use’. For Alexei Arbatov, a leading Russian expert on international security, the last point is vital, because the civilian population of a country would become, from the start of a nuclear conflict, ‘the immediate target of devastating nuclear strikes’, threatening millions of lives, so that ‘the very nature of these weapons prompts the need for democratic control’.

Rather than being subject to democratic influence and control, the original British decision to acquire nuclear weapons was, according to Professor John Simpson, taken by ‘a small group of key cabinet members in private’ and subsequent British governments ‘continued to favour taking decisions through this process’. Research conducted in the 1980s by Oxford Research Group found that nuclear weapons development generally implies high degrees of secrecy and a lack of public accountability and transparency, so that decisions are taken by very small numbers of, often unelected, bureaucrats, experts and specialists. The lack of an effective review process in western, democratic nuclear weapon states and the lack of public accountability of those shaping nuclear decisions, thus offered ‘more similarities than differences’ with the process of nuclear weapons decision-making in the then Soviet Union and China.[1] For example, the Chevaline project, upgrading the Polaris nuclear weapons system to ensure Britain’s missiles could evade Russian anti-ballistic missile defences and hit Moscow- was kept secret for over a decade before finally being made public in 1980 despite exorbitant costs.

Britain’s nuclear weapons are under civilian command- only the Prime Minister can order them to be used- but are also assigned to NATO, which retains a first-use policy. Groups such as NATO Watch argue that the military alliance’s closed and secretive nature means that NATO denies civil society ‘the right to participate in the formulation of policies that have a profound effect on their liberties and security.’ For example, little information exists on the process by which decisions would be taken leading British weapons to be used in a NATO role. According to John Simpson, the Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR)- who has always been a US officer- can order the use of UK nuclear weapons assigned to NATO (after consulting the US president) but a British Prime Minister may block this action. For Professor Norman Dombey, however, NATO no longer has a nuclear posture and thus there is ‘no meaningful assignment of the Trident force to NATO’. This argument is based on NATO’s declaration that the role of its nuclear forces is now ‘more fundamentally political’ so that they are ‘no longer directed towards a specific threat’. Dombey therefore concludes that, for the UK, the only possible meaning of ‘assigned to NATO’ is that Trident is ‘in practice assigned to the US’.

The secrecy surrounding nuclear weapons, spanning several decades, justified in the name of protecting state security and preventing the proliferation of technology, has impaired British citizen’s awareness of the significant decisions being taken in their name and which could put their lives in jeopardy during a time of crisis. Civil society’s fight for information to be in the public domain is vital so that the costs and risks of Trident, including safety and environmental issues surrounding the Atomic Weapons Establishment, are widely known. Polls suggest that while the issue is not a political priority for the British public, opinion has moved over recent years towards the UK relinquishing nuclear weapons. The anti-Trident position is generally strengthened when people are made aware that £20-25 billion will have to be spent for the capital costs of replacing Trident, starting with a new fleet of ballistic missile submarines. Yet the overall price tag for Trident replacement is likely to be significantly higher, especially if operating expenses and other costs are considered.

The above examples illustrate that far from protecting British democracy, nuclear weapons, shrouded in secrecy, have had a deeply corrosive effect. A tiny yet very powerful elite has taken decisions of the greatest magnitude, potentially threatening the lives of millions, without the public’s knowledge, involvement or approval. Enormous sums of money have been routinely spent without democratic oversight or scrutiny. It is thus imperative that nuclear weapons are, in future, subject to democratic control. Clearly, this prospect frightens powerful supporters of the status quo as the public increasingly favours scrapping Trident and the prospect of its removal from Scotland- should that nation vote for independence- becomes a real possibility.

[1] McLean, Scilla ed. (1986), How Nuclear Weapons Decisions Are Made and Miall, Hugh (1987) Nuclear Weapons: Who’s in Charge?

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