At last, it’s time to debate Britain’s nuclear weapons

ON ITS submarines Britain has 48 nuclear warheads, each one eight times as powerful as the nuclear bomb that obliterated Hiroshima. In other words, Prime Minister Tony Blair theoretically could order the almost instant incineration of 384 large cities around the world. Barely anyone in parliament has mentioned it, much less debated it in the eight and a half years Blair has been in office.

By Jonathan Power

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Published: Sat 26 Nov 2005, 10:12 AM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 3:23 PM

But recently, all of a relative sudden, Blair has promised a discussion sometime "in the life of the present parliament" because the US, the supplier of the Trident missiles (but not the warheads which are home-made), has made it clear that it will soon be taking a decision on replacing its own Tridents and the UK must decide in tandem what to do with its.

As Blair slides gently, but not particularly gracefully, to the end of his term in office it looks as if the prime minister has decided to kick this ball down the field for his successor to deal with. If it is, as is generally believed, the present Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, it will be interesting to see how this high principled son of a Church of Scotland minister deals with this moral conundrum, particularly since powerful voices within the opposition Conservative Party seem to be increasingly both anti the Iraq war and doubtful about the value of an independent nuclear deterrent. The other principal opposition party, the Liberal Democrats, has never been particularly supportive of nuclear weapons.

Perhaps, there is a window of opportunity for nuclear disarmers particularly since the British are at the forefront of a European Union initiative to persuade Iran to forgo nuclear weapons, a country that lives in a far more dangerous neighbourhood than Britain. After all, the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which the West brandishes before Iran, demands categorically that the old ‘nuclear haves’ must seriously engage in nuclear disarmament.

What rational argument could be presented to parliament in favour of renewing Britain’s nuclear armoury? "History is full of surprises", argued one participant in a recent Oxford conference on the subject. That is about as tough minded as the proponents of nuclear deterrence get these days. But set against that is the growing consensus that it is now clear in retrospect that even in the darkest days of the Cold War there was never a real possibility that the Soviet Union would launch a nuclear attack against the West. According to the accounts of a majority of historians, Stalin’s ambitions in Europe were satisfied by the Yalta settlement made with Churchill and Roosevelt.

General George Lee Butler concluded after his many years as head of US Strategic Command (the man responsible for putting into action a president’s order to begin a nuclear attack) that nuclear weapons "are irrational devices" and argues that the US itself should disarm. "I have arrived at the conclusion that it is simply wrong for any mortal to be invested with the authority to call into question the survival of the planet."

Professor Robert O’Neill, the former professor of the History of War at the University of Oxford, argues against the notion that in a nuclear-free world a cheater would be king. "No, because using a few nuclear weapons or threatening to use them would be of very limited value. Either the bluff would be called or, if it turns out not to be a bluff and someone does use them, they would open themselves to unimaginable retaliation by the whole international community, backed by intense outrage around the world. For the nation that did use nuclear weapons it would just be another way of committing suicide."

Field Marshal Lord Michael Carver, the former chief of the British Defence Staff, argues, "The most important thing is to persuade everyone that the target has got to be total elimination. If you start peddling solutions which are not quite total elimination you lose the whole force of the argument." Yet against this passion brought by ex military men is ranged popular inertia on one side and on the other a deeply embedded culture of nuclear deterrence, not just in the military-industrial complex but in academia and the media.

As former West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt (ex nuclear hawk, now a dove) has analysed it, "there is an enormous body of vested interests not only through lobbying in Washington and Moscow but through influence on intellectuals, on people who write books and articles in newspapers or do features on television. It’s very difficult as a reader or viewer to distinguish by one’s own judgment what is led by those interests and what is led by rational conclusion."

But surely it is not beyond the British parliament to develop a mind of its own on the subject and start the anti-nuclear ball rolling.

Jonathan Power is a veteran foreign affairs commentator based in London. He can be reached at

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