Why can’t Britain abandon its nuclear arsenal?

On its submarines Britain has 48 nuclear warheads, each one eight times as powerful as the nuclear bomb that obliterated Hiroshima.

By Jonathan Power (Power’s World)

Published: Tue 31 Aug 2010, 9:35 PM

Last updated: Mon 6 Apr 2015, 8:41 AM

In other words, theoretically Prime Minister James Cameron could order the almost instant incineration of 384 large cities around the world. Barely anyone in the parliament mentioned it, much less debated it in the many years Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were in office. Not before its time the coalition government of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats appears to be gearing up for a decision, partly because the missiles are slowly but steadily wearing out and partly because many senior voices in the military in the post Cold War world would like to see the money spent on other, more immediately useful, weapons, transport. Many Conservative and Liberal Democrat members of parliament are doubtful about the value of an independent nuclear deterrent.

Perhaps there is a window of opportunity for nuclear disarmers, particularly since the British are at the forefront of a European Union and American attempt to persuade Iran to forgo nuclear weapons, a country that lives in a far more dangerous neighbourhood than Britain. After all, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation 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 an Oxford University 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. Presidents Dmitri Medvedev and Barack Obama have taken a significant, if inadequate, step in nuclear disarmament and both say they would like the numbers to fall to zero. But their job, given the size of their forces, is more difficult. In contrast Britain only has three nuclear-armed submarines. To get rid of these, useless in any war imaginable, would have a profound effect on other would-be nuclear powers, Iran first, North Korea second and, third, those other Middle Eastern powers which are considering building a bomb to match Israel’s large armoury. If they were prepared to sign a Middle East Non-Proliferation Treaty, as they are discussing, Israel could well feel pressured to forsake its nuclear armoury.

Jonathan Power is a veteran foreign affairs commentator based in London

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