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Trident is a colossal waste of money that will encourage further nuclear proliferation

James Bloodworth

Mushroom 225x300 Trident is a colossal waste of money that will encourage further nuclear proliferationI have several problems with the popular notion that there’s no money left. I think the first time the absurdity of it struck me was when I heard the incredibly wealthy entrepreneur Deborah Meaden saying it on Question Time during a debate about striking teachers and dinner ladies. I recall looking round a room of friends, wondering who would be the first to guffaw at the gargantuan level of irony in the statement. No money left? Well, she certainly seemed to be doing ok.

There are other occasions too when the language of austerity jars with reality, most notably when it comes to the renewal of Britain’s nuclear arsenal. Trident was excluded from the government’s Strategic Defence and Security Review in October 2010; and despite murmurings from some Liberal Democrats (aren’t there always murmurings from Liberal Democrats?), the coalition seems intent on spending £20 billion-plus renewing a weapons system which, if ever deployed, would result in the deaths of thousands, if not millions of human beings.

Twenty billion is just a figure of course. To put it into some kind of perspective, George Osborne’s first budget planned for cuts of six billion pounds; and public sector workers currently face a three per cent rise in their pension contributions to save the state just under two billion. A modern hospital costs in the region of £90 million (which, as it happens, would save thousands of lives a year, rather than stand-by ready to exterminate them), and a state-of-the-art environmentally friendly school costs between five and £10 million. To give free school dinners to every primary school child in the country would cost a further one billion pounds.

All of the above, as you might have noticed, are a pittance compared to the gigantic sum set aside for the renewal of Trident. In order to justify a spend three times that of George Osborne’s first year of budget cuts, you would at least expect Trident to have a substantial argument behind it. It doesn’t.

Trident categorically fails on its own terms, for there is very little to suggest it would “deter” anybody much from anything. As far as traditional warfare goes, Britain was a nuclear power when Egypt nationalised the Suez Canal and General Galtieri invaded the Falklands, and the possession of a nuclear arsenal did little to dissuade either party from their course of action – for the obvious reason that we could never morally justify using such a weapon; nor do so without first attaining the authorisation of the United States.

As for the contemporary security threat, back in 2009 a letter sent to The Times signed by a group of senior military officers – figures not known for their pacifist tendencies – said the following: “Nuclear weapons have shown themselves to be completely useless as a deterrent to the threats and scale of violence we currently face or are likely to face, particularly international terrorism.”

In reality, having nuclear weapons is likely to encourage other states to pursue their own nuclear capabilities. When a person questions why Iran is not allowed to develop nuclear weapons when Britain has them, it may be a slightly disingenuous point – Britain is a democracy, after all, while Iran is a theocracy that executes homosexuals – but it does contain an element of truth: you cannot preach non-proliferation, nor expect it, while simultaneously building up your own lethal nuclear arsenal. Do so, and others will try and emulate you.

Anyone who has ever cracked a joke about nuclear weapons, or who has reflected on what we might do with them were we to go to war, or who has accepted them as an everyday part of civilisation, like the car or the internet, ought to ponder for a moment a paragraph from John Hersey’s book Hiroshima, a calm and lucid piece of journalism based on interviews with survivors of the atomic bomb the United States dropped on Japan on the morning on 6 August 1945.

“Mr Tanimoto found about twenty men and women in the sandpit. He drove the boat onto the bank and urged them to get aboard. They did not move and he realized that they were too weak to lift themselves. He reached down and took a woman by the hands, but her skin slipped off in huge, glove like pieces. He was so sickened by this that he had to sit down for a moment. Then he got out into the water and, though a small man, lifted several of the men and women, who were naked, into his boat. Their backs and breasts were clammy, and he remembered uneasily what the great burns he had seen during the day had been like: yellow at first, then red and swollen, with the skin sloughed off, and finally, in the evening, suppurated and smelly. With the tide risen, his bamboo pole was now too short and he had to paddle most of the way across with it. On the other side, at a higher spit, he lifted the slimy living bodies out and carried them up the slope away from the tide. He had to keep consciously repeating to himself, ‘These are human beings’.”

The fact that the idea of a nuclear free world sounds hopelessly romantic today is proof not of how rational it is to possess nuclear arms, but of how accepting we have gradually become of casual militarism, with its dehumanising rhetoric of “collateral damage”, “deterrents” and “surgical strikes”.

In the coming months the furore over Iran’s nuclear programme is likely to reach fever pitch. It is always easier to level criticism at the behaviour of others at a great distance from ourselves, even though it is often the correct position to take. Sometimes, however, lunacy closer to home also demands our vehement opposition.

Picture credit: Getty Images

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  • blankwar

    So basically Geoff Hoon said Britain would only consider using its nuclear weapons in response to another country using theirs. Pretty much what they were designed for, to stop anyone actually deploying weapons of mass destruction. I’m all for increasing our manufacturing base, but I can’t see why throwing away an established industry which provides a useful sevice (making an invasion of Western Europe physically impossible) at a reasonable price (5% of the defence budget) is a usefull way of doing this.

  • PJimH

    If you read the statement I quoted, Hoon was threatening to use nuclear weapons against Iraq if the regime used WMD against British troops “in the field” i.e. in the process of invading Iraq. It wasn’t a restatement of a position of deterrence against a foreign aggressor, since in 2003 the UK and US were the aggressors. There was never, at any point, any threat to the UK from Iraq. So Hoon’s statements merely added a nuclear element to the conventional threat already being made against Iraq, which was carried out a year later.

    Of course you’re free to believe that nuclear weapons provide a useful service, it’s a free country. But the idea of Western Europe being invaded by another country or power bloc belongs to history. We live in a vastly more integrated world than 70 years ago. In 2012 conflicts are more likely to break out over energy and water resources, rather than industrialised nations attacking each other over competing ideologies. I wouldn’t rule out some kind of confrontation between the US and China in decades to come (who knows how the US is going to react when oil really starts to get scarce…) but Europe isn’t threatened with invasion. Nations are more likely to try to dominate each other economically these days, rather than to invade each other’s territory.

    While £2billion isn’t a lot in terms of the national budget it’s still a huge sum and could be more usefully employed elsewhere, for example making the UK more energy independent and less exposed to crises elsewhere in the world. But I’m happy to agree to disagree.


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