Trident: a damp squib of a debate

What could be even more pathetic than Blair’s case for renewing Britain’s nuclear deterrent? How about his opponents’ arguments.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics

The Great Trident Debate about renewing Britain’s nuclear deterrent has turned into a damp squib. Instead of the predicted fireworks on all sides this week, we witnessed a pathetic display in which the government’s spluttering case in favour of renewing Britain’s fleet of nuclear-armed Trident submarines met with some strikingly low-impact arguments launched by its opponents. Just about the strongest words that the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) could muster in response to Blair’s statement was to declare themselves ‘very, very disappointed’. They were not the only ones.

Prime minister Tony Blair has been caught trying to have it both ways. He wants us to believe that the threat to Our Way of Life against which we need to guard today comes not from old-style wars and invasions, but from terrorist networks. Yet he also wants to maintain the UK’s nuclear capability, as a ‘deterrent’. How some missiles on a submarine off the Scottish coast are supposed to deter a terrorist from planting a bomb on London transport remains unclear. To try to square the circle, New Labour argues (and the Conservative opposition in parliament accepts) that we need the nuclear deterrent to threaten those states which try to arm terror groups with nukes of their own. States like, presumably, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Of course we all recall how convincingly the government’s ‘dodgy dossiers’ proved that Saddam really was acquiring nuclear weapons that would be given to al-Qaeda. So why should anybody doubt its case for Trident now?

Moving on from these embarrassing details, the big argument that the government offers in support of Trident is that we live in an insecure world in which anything can happen. So, like the Boy Scouts, we need to be prepared, albeit with nuclear subs rather than Swiss army knives. This throws some interesting light on the changing role of fear in the politics of nuclear weaponry.

During the Cold War years from the mid-1940s to the end of the 1980s, successive British governments exploited public fears to justify the nuclear arsenal. But that was the old-fashioned politics of fear, focused on a specific, concrete threat from the nuclear power of the Soviet Union. Today, by contrast, the politics of fear flits from one supposed threat to another, feeding off the general climate of insecurity and anxiety about the future. Or as Blair tried to put it in parliament on Monday, arguing that we might need a nuclear deterrent in the changed world 20 years from now: ‘We could not recognise, the world we live in now, that it would not be wise to predict the unpredictable in the times to come.’ The incoherence of his argument captures the unfocused, all-over-the-place state of the contemporary politics of fear.

Yet the opponents of Trident offered, if anything, an even weaker argument. Their problem is that they accept many of the political premises of the government’s case – the need to prioritise security in an uncertain world, and to combat the mortal threat of terrorism to our society. Their complaint is only a tactical one, that Trident and nuclear missiles are an expensive and unnecessary way to pursue these common goals.

There has always been a deep flaw in the campaigns against nuclear weapons, going back to their heydays in the 1960s and the 1980s. It has been a campaign focused narrowly on criticising particular types of missiles, rather than the broader politics of militarism. This often led to the bizarre spectacle of campaigners striking a moral pose against nuclear weapons, which had only been used twice back in 1945, while ignoring the fact that Britain’s new ‘conventional’ wars were raging all around them, from Northern Ireland to the South Atlantic.

Twenty-odd years ago, the argument which some of us on the left had with the anti-nukes lobby was that weapons, however powerful, do not cause wars. Nor does the absence of particular weapons prevent bloody conflicts. People and states fight in pursuit of political and economic aims. The attempt to reduce this complex process to the existence of nuclear weapons is a symptom of what Marx described as the ‘fetishism of commodities’, by which social powers are attributed to inanimate objects. Just as ‘money makes the world go round’, apparently disconnected from the products of labour that it represents, so nuclear weapons are seen as the disembodied threat to ‘world peace’, removed from the political context in which real conflicts arise.

Today, the weak opposition to Trident looks like a pale imitation of the old anti-nuclear movement. The empty moral posture struck against nuclear weapons is well summed up by the group of Church of England bishops who have warned Blair that possession of Trident is ‘evil’, as if these weapons were somehow cursed by unworldly powers. Just as prominent opponents of Trident today tend to be against these ‘evil’ weapons but not others, arguing that the money saved could be spent on forces to fight terrorism, so they are against certain wars but not others. Indeed, some of those leading the protests against Trident are the same liberal-leftists who pioneered the demand for Britain to launch more conventional wars of intervention in places such as the Balkans in the 1990s, and who – despite their disagreement over the invasion of Iraq – are even now calling for military intervention in Darfur.

The anti-Trident lobby is also infected with the same politics of fear as the government. Thus former New Labour cabinet minister Michael Meacher argues that spending billions on renewing Trident is a waste of the money that could be spent on combating what he argues are more pressing threats to civilisation – namely terrorism and global warming. Opponents also warn that Britain having the Bomb can only encourage other, less trustworthy Third World, countries to acquire it. As ever, competing to scaremonger more blatantly than a Blair or a Bush is no way to win the argument for progressive politics.

In this damp squib of a debate, few have dared to mention the honest reason why New Labour wants to renew Trident. Since America dropped the Bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, nuclear weapons have not served a primarily military purpose (another reason why arguing that they are defensively unnecessary misses the point). They have been insignia of political power, denoting membership of the global elite. Thus the legal members of the nuclear club – the USA, the UK, France, Russia and China – are also the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council.

British governments have long understood that having nuclear weapons was necessary to maintain the image of Britain as a world power in the post-Empire era. The first majority Labour government (1945-51), headed by Clement Attlee, is recalled with misty eyes by many on the left as the high point of British socialism. Yet it was Attlee who developed the British Bomb – without even telling most members of his Cabinet – to show that the UK still had clout in the postwar world.

Blair, Gordon Brown and their New Labour allies want to renew Trident, and remain part of the US-led nuclear alliance, in order to keep up the pretence that Britain will always be a key player on the world stage. It is essentially the same reason why Blair followed Bush into Iraq – not because Britain is America’s ‘poodle’, but because it still wants to be a bulldog. The alternative would be to accept that Britain’s global political future lies as a middling European power like Belgium or Holland. No British prime minister is prepared to do that yet, and the billions for Trident seem a relatively small price to pay for a place at the top table. How long they can continue to sustain the image after the Iraq debacle remains to be seen.

One thing they will not have to worry too much about is the opposition to Trident in British politics. Fifty years ago, Nye Bevan – hero of the Labour left – famously warned his party conference that supporting nuclear disarmament would mean sending the British foreign secretary ‘naked into the conference chamber’. Bevan also dismissed support for unilateral disarmament as ‘an emotional spasm’ rather than a political principle. I was reminded of his words when I heard reports of those anti-Trident protesters repeatedly offering themselves for arrest outside the Faslane submarine base in Scotland. What is the purpose of such a little ritual, beyond making the arrestees feel righteous? The opposition to renewing Trident looks like a spasm of emotional and moralistic outrage that bears little relationship to the real issues of global politics and militarism today.

We need a proper debate about whether Britain should be assuming the moral authority to pursue the Blair/Brown/Cameron crusade to save the wicked world from itself. We need to raise the anti-interventionist arguments, and not just about post-invasion Iraq. Instead we are faced with a petty bean-counting row over which is the worse waste of money – the billions spent on Trident, or the millions spent on policing the Trident base against a few protesters. I wouldn’t want to put my money on either side.

Mick Hume is editor of spiked.

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Topics Politics


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