‘With Trident we could obliterate the whole of Eastern Europe’, protests Sir Humphrey Appleby in a classic episode of Yes Prime Minister when Jim Hacker tells him that he is scrapping Trident. ‘It’s a bluff. I probably wouldn’t use it’, says Hacker. But our enemies don’t know that, responds Sir Humphrey. Besides, he concludes, ‘It all boils down to one simple issue. Don’t you believe that Britain should have the best? If you walked into a nuclear missile showroom, you would buy Trident. ... In the world of nuclear missiles it is the Savile Row suit, the Rolls Royce Corniche, the Chateau Lafitte 1945. It is the nuclear missile Harrods would sell.’
Judging by Philip Hammond’s recent announcement of £350 million funding for the renewal of Trident, Sir Humphrey’s logic is very much alive in Britain today. Despite austerity, cuts across the board, and an economy barely limping out of recession, the government seems to have plenty in its coffers for weapons we will certainly never use, whose purpose we don’t really understand, and which appear utterly irrelevant to the international security environment of the modern world.
The government’s professed logic is two-fold: the deterrent will keep Britain safe, and it will create jobs. ‘Our continuous submarine-based nuclear deterrent is the ultimate safeguard of our national security’, Mr Hammond said, adding that, ‘This latest expenditure for the next generation of nuclear-armed submarines is an investment in UK security and the British economy, sustaining high-quality jobs and vital skills.’
The security arguments made sense during the Cold War. Today they are much weaker. It is not at all clear whom the deterrent is meant to deter. If the worry is not any current threat but the possibility of some future threat emerging, then a submarine-based deterrent which is continuously at sea is superfluous. Proposals for a more modest nuclear force which would remain inactive until such time as it is needed would be far more appropriate. Rather than jumping the gun, waiting for the results of the current nuclear review would make a great deal of sense.
In any case, at a time when the country’s conventional armed forces are in their second decade of intensive overseas operations, cutting those armed forces while buying a new generation of nuclear weapons which can have no role in the type of wars which Britain actually fights is more than a little perverse.
As for Mr Hammond’s claim that Trident will create jobs, the less said the better. Military Keynesianism should have no place in modern economic discourse. For sure, the inhabitants of Faslane will gain employment, but the economy elsewhere will suffer as a result. The government surely knows this.
How then can one explain the British government’s baffling policy? First, Conservatives retain a deep, blind belief in nuclear power dating from the Cold War era. Conservative opposition to the Labour party’s policy of unilateralism was one of the things which marked out Conservatives in the 1980s when Cameron and others were coming of age. Nuclear weapons are an article of faith.
Second, nuclear weapons are not really about deterrence at all. They are about prestige. Britons cling to an obsolete view that the measure of greatness is military power. Since nuclear weapons are the ultimate in military power, they are, people assume, an essential element of being a great nation. This is a quite outdated notion. Germany, Italy, Canada, and many other medium-ranked countries enjoy wealth, prestige, and influence without needing nuclear weapons. Britain could too. The government should reconsider its decision.
Paul Robinson is the author of ‘The fat red line: time to cut British defence spending’ in Sharper Axes, Lower Taxes: Big Steps to a Smaller State.