BASIC published last week the long-awaited Trident Commission report on Britain’s nuclear weapons policy. Our intention was to focus the debate, strip away the weaker, vague and dangerous arguments in favour of Trident renewal, and identify the core national security arguments that remain convincing to those close to the British government. We are now left with greater clarity on the grounds for debate: could Britain in future face alone a nuclear threat in which its nuclear weapons could effectively deter? How can Britain best contribute to creating the conditions for global nuclear disarmament?
The village of Westminster is failing the UK public over Britain’s nuclear weapons policy at this most critical of moments, largely because of the tendency for leaderships to play things conservatively when it comes to this issue. For the first time in a generation, we have the chance to debate this issue in an election campaign prior to a key decision on whether to remain in the nuclear business. Whilst the dominant attitude in the public is one of indifference, there is nevertheless a passionate minority that remains out there. With the strategic landscape on the move in eastern Europe and the Middle East, and the future of the nuclear non-proliferation regime under threat largely from the inability of the nuclear weapon states to agree on effective disarmament, the relationship between ourselves as a nation and weapons of mass destruction remains potent. The possession of and implicit threat to use nuclear weapons presents a number of deep challenges to our national status and integrity. But these qualities seem lost in a void of leadership.
But this debate is likely to be muted, not least because the larger parties are close enough to a consensus on renewing the system (OK, so the LibDem leadership may be arguing for three new submarines rather than four). Largely under-whelmed by their determination to protect massive investments in new nuclear weapon systems whilst other public service and military budgets experience unprecedented cutbacks, the public is left out of the debate.
Of course, the wildcard of the Scottish referendum on September 18th stirs things up a little, but in all likelihood this will have little impact on the prospects for a final decision. It has always been an irony that the Trident system, that is said to protect the Union by threatening any hostile country with annihilation, is actually one of its principal, highly symbolic liabilities used by those seeking the Union’s dissolution.
You cannot blame particular individuals for this failure to engage (even Ed Miliband), though of course we are prone to try. No, it’s a structural thing. We are only going to achieve change by adapting our positions, through persistent and strategic development of the case through engagement with those we disagree with, in a manner that lands with many of those with influence within the system. That is of course unless you’re planning the first English revolution in 350 years. Protest and rational argument within the media we have access to have their place, of course, but are insufficient. Flexibility is the key.
This is why I set up the Trident Commission in 2011. I did not persuade our supporters in this venture that we would win around to our view the members of the Commission, who were after all not only independent and strong willed themselves, but who had immense experience in their own different ways of determining and ‘delivering’ the policies of previous governments. Rather, by taking a step back and reassessing the situation a fresh, we hoped that they would assist all of us to do the same, to narrow down the debate, strip out weak, extraneous or distorted arguments, and end up with a refocused core. And by achieving this they have provided a service to all keen on helping everyone move beyond the safety or purity of their own position.
There remains deep attachment within the national security elite to an argument that in a context where the future is deeply uncertain and strategic change is rapid, with all sorts of existential threats lurking around the corner, it would be imprudent to forego a massive miracle weapon that ensures we are treated seriously and with respect when neutralising those threats or seeking to impose world order. In its final conclusion, the Commission rejects this approach, because nuclear weapons are not magic – they have no relevance to virtually every emerging threat, and because such a policy approach would be a powerful driver in persuading other states to get hold of their own. They agreed that Britain’s status in the world, its ability to intervene to affect change, and its seat on the Security Council could not factor in the decision on whether to keep nuclear weapons.
In the end, the Commission centred on two dimensions as the core justification – that Britain could yet face alone a nuclear threat (or potential future biological threat with similar impact), and that Britain needed to consider the responsibilities to its allies’ security and the cohesion of NATO. At BASIC we believe that British nuclear weapons have no significant contribution to European security. However, if the alliance members themselves consider nuclear deterrence to play a crucial role in their security, and that there is some danger to asking the US taxpayer to foot the bill entirely and US leaders to take the moral and political responsibility to brandish these weapons, then there is an important job to do to persuade them otherwise. There also needs to be a continuing and honest debate around the effectiveness of nuclear weapons in responding to nuclear threats from others, because to have any credibility we have to be openly ready to use them with terrifying consequences – and what kind of country does that make us?
Whilst it would not in itself be a reason to retain nuclear weapons, the Commission also thought that full unilateral disarmament could negatively impact upon Britain’s influence specifically within the international discussions on nuclear disarmament. This was seen as important because the ultimate purpose behind reducing and eliminating British nuclear weapons would be to strengthen security by reducing global nuclear dangers. At BASIC we would contend that British disarmament, if done with diplomatic flare, could play a critical role in transforming the dangerous state of global nuclear disarmament diplomacy. The Commission disagreed. But there is clearly room for debate on this matter.
The Commission does not shy away from the recognition that existing Britain’s nuclear weapons policy does not sit easily with a vision of a world free of nuclear weapons. Requiring others to move first or to foreswear nuclear weapons entirely whilst we retain ours is a challenging acrobatic trick we ask our diplomats to perform on a regular basis. It is unreasonable and unsustainable. It has been a challenge for the Commission to come up with answers to this quandary that will be credible to those states whose cooperation is essential to ensure our world does not descend into strategic chaos. It represents an important irritant to supporters of retaining the nuclear arsenal, one that they have to address with greater success than they have done up to now. So, we need to keep asking the question in an engaging manner, because Britain does have disproportionate influence on global norms, and not always positive.
The Commission was never intended to be the last word on the Trident debate and is therefore not the missed opportunity many feel it has been. It is flawed. But I would encourage people not simply to find fault in its conclusions because they don’t agree with them, but rather to see the opportunities buried within its pages to further the debate in a manner that addresses the inconsistencies, and the challenges at the heart of positions that up to now have been protected by a polarized and rather safe debate (for those seeking to keep nuclear weapons) that has been bumping along for the past seven decades.
These are the views of the author.