Thirty six years ago, as a student, I wrote to the then Minister of Defense, Francis Pym, to argue that both the enormously expensive ‘Chevaline’ program to upgrade Britain’s Polaris submarines (a program that for years had been kept entirely secret from the people paying for it), and the even more enormously expensive replacement of Polaris / Chevaline with Trident submarines, was unwise. His response was polite and pleasant, but I couldn’t help feeling that the underlying thinking was all too clear: it was jolly important, all things considered, for Britain to remain jolly important.
Today, alas, we find the first evidence that the Brexit vote’s one potential silver lining—getting Britain’s public figures to stop caring about the country being jolly important, and care instead about it being a country of whose values our grandchildren might justifiably be proud—is a false hope. For MPs have voted by a large majority to approve the even more vastly expensive replacement of Trident with a successor fleet of four next-generation submarines. And, since 95% of the world’s countries lack a nuclear deterrent, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that the thinking is fundamentally the same as it was in 1980.
Ironically, the vote has taken place just days after the new Prime Minister will have completed the grimmest and most surreal of all her responsibilities—hand-writing four identical copies of the so-called Letter of Last Resort. This goes into a double safe on each of Britain’s nuclear-armed submarines, and tells the captains how she thinks they should parse the philosophical conundrum they will find themselves in if they ever conclude that Britain and its government have already been destroyed in a nuclear attack: Actually use a deterrent, even though it has already failed, and thus commit mass murder on an incomprehensible scale—because after all we said we would? Or not?
Scottish MP Mhairi Black just posted a video of her spirited and well-argued House of Commons speech against a Trident replacement. Check it out.
Nuclear deterrence is a strange paradox, as that business of the Letter illustrates. Perhaps that’s why people so many of the comments on Ms. Black’s speech are mutually angry and uncomprehending. I recommend to people on both sides of the aisle that the best way to look at it may be this: stop thinking about what’s ‘good for the nation,’ stop thinking about ‘defense’ altogether in fact, and remember that in the end all these questions are wrapped up in one that matters more:
Does our decision decrease, or increase, the probability that at some point in the future tens of millions of innocent people, including perhaps our own children or grandchildren, will be burned alive in a war that didn’t need to happen?
I don’t know the answer to that question, but I have one simple reason for suspecting that replacing Trident increases this probability. Nuclear proliferation is a terrible and frighteningly urgent problem that we’ve forgotten about in all the focus on other existential threats like climate change. Accidents alone have brought us within a hair’s breadth of nuclear war on more than one occasion. And a Trident replacement puts off, for yet another whole generation or more, any meaningful British contribution to nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation.
For a quick reminder of just how dire a problem nuclear proliferation is, see this review (by California Governor Jerry Brown) of William Perry’s recent My Journey at the Nuclear Brink: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2016/07/14/a-stark-nuclear-warning/.