UK’s nuclear arsenal - time to disarm

We can’t tackle today’s threats using Cold War weapons. That’s why what the UK does with its nuclear arsenal has never been more pertinent.

On the same day the Government announced its approval for a third runway at Heathrow, something else momentous happened that concerns that other major threat to the world – the proliferation of nuclear bombs.

As if from nowhere, three of Britain’s most prestigious military commanders called on the Government to scrap Trident. Field Marshall Lord Bramall, a former chief of defence staff, General Lord Ramsbothom, a former adjutant-general, and General Sir Hugh Beach, former master general of the ordinance, said Trident had become ‘virtually irrelevant’, and argued: ‘It must be asked in what way, and against whom, our nuclear weapons could be used’.

Encouragingly, the debate over the nuclear arsenal is making a comeback, but this time the most vocal critics of the weapons system are coming from the most unlikely quarters. Set against the context of climate change and international terrorism, as well as a biting recession, it is precisely the irrelevance of our nuclear weapons system that is making it so relevant. As the generals put it in their letter to the Times: ‘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’. Lord Ramsbothom told BBC Newsnight: ‘It is a Cold War weapon. It is not a weapon for the situation where we are now’.

It’s a strong point. What use is a Trident submarine that carries 1,536 times the explosive capability of the Hiroshima bomb? This is especially true given that we’re talking about ‘an enemy’ that comes in the form of Islamic fundamentalist individuals blowing up trains and buses.

While in some ways it’s understandable that these weapons are no longer at the top of peoples’ list of worries – ‘they’ll never be used,’ it is often said – it made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck when I read four years ago that a secret Pentagon report, leaked to the press, showed US commanders expecting that nuclear conflict could arise from the dwindling food, water and energy supplies resulting from abrupt climate change. Indeed, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists claims that, in part because of climate change and the resulting pressure on resources and refugee flows, the likelihood of nuclear conflict is higher now than at any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis.

There is a compelling argument that says to deal with modern security threats and to improve our national security requires a focus on reducing our dependence upon foreign oil and gas, which in turn means such boring things as loft insulation and increased renewables uptake. It’d be good for security and for tackling climate change. Is it more relevant to address Britain’s security needs by spending £100 billion on new nuclear weapons or on hitting our renewables target of 20 per cent of renewable heat, electricity and transport by 2020? The Government estimates that hitting these targets would also cost £100 billion. Were we to meet this target, it would slash our dependence on foreign fossil fuels, a source of instability across the world.

It is something of a relief that important international voices are putting disarmament back on to the agenda, even if they are showing nothing like the commitment necessary. Back in 2007, Barack Obama called for the US to begin building a global consensus to reverse a reliance on nuclear weapons that have become ‘increasingly hazardous and decreasingly effective’. On Obama’s first full day in office he issued a statement to ‘set a goal of a world without nuclear weapons, and pursue it’.

Equally, I understand that by the time this article goes to print, our Foreign Secretary David Miliband will have made a speech outlining support for restarting international talks to set a framework for disarmament. Yet this is undermined by PM Gordon Brown’s recent decision to approve a whole new generation of nukes. This hardly puts us in a good position to negotiate as we re-enter international Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) talks in May 2010. Equally, Obama’s failure to even mention Israel’s nuclear status isn’t a good sign.

What’s new, and particularly important, though, is that while once it would have been Labour politicians arguing most vociferously for disarmament, it is now the likes of the generals, former defence secretary Michael Portillo and right-wing commentator Max Hastings who want unilateral disarmament and are making the most noise about it. That’s important because it changes the premise of the discussion. The generals wrote: ‘Our independent deterrent has become virtually irrelevant except in the context of domestic politics’, but the domestic battlefield has changed as dramatically as the international one. If you favour nuclear disarmament it no longer indicates you are a Bennite. If Miliband got serious, he couldn’t credibly be accused of lurching to the left. We might still be able to have a conversation about this most relevant of irrelevancies.

Joss Garman is an environmental campaigner and journalist

This article first appeared in the Ecologist March 2009

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