Gordon Brown, in stark contrast to his usually cautious fiscal policy, has publicly backed the most expensive option available: a full replacement for the Trident submarine force, warning against compromising on the British nuclear deterrent. But the truth is, this is estimated to cost anything up to £40 billion over its lifetime. The important question, then, is are we really getting value for money here? £40 billion is an awful lot of cash to be spending: it is £2billion more than this years’ total defence budget or, to put it in a different light, almost half an NHS. Frustratingly though, the answer is that a Trident replacement is a poor way, an unwise way to spend British tax money. The very notion of a nuclear deterrent is a hang-up from a forgotten era – one of towering superpowers and diametrically opposed, utterly incompatible ideologies across continents. During the Cold War, a nuclear deterrent was seen as vital – theories of Mutually Assured Destruction bounced alongside flashpoints that came scarily close to a full-scale war – the Cuban Missile Crisis for example. But the Cold War is long over and the world is a markedly different place – something which the proponents of a nuclear arsenal fail to recognise. The threat to national security no longer comes to us from large nations visibly hostile to our way of life. There is no USSR-esque bloc of territories that we can aim our guns at anymore. The “Moscow Criterion” no longer applies, even in spirit. The threat now, as our Prime Minister spends so long telling us, is from those ambiguous and elusive terrorists. If, God-forbid, a small cell of perhaps ten people manage to detonate a dirty bomb in a city centre, who should we send our retaliation to? Who should we bomb into submission? Terrorism is borne of alienation and nuclear weaponry is not the most integrating of things.
What else can £40billion buy then? Quite a lot really. Perhaps the best way to decide how to allocate this money is by examining the threats to our nation. Terrorism, yes. But I barely think that the 7/7 bombers had second thoughts when they considered the British Trident submarine patrolling the ocean. Surely an even more compelling danger is that of climate change – this much money would stand Britain in good stead to help tackle the problem and mitigate economic fallout as far as possible. Or maybe our ailing education or health systems could be helped out a little. More and more schools fall beneath Ofsted’s standards, more and more hospitals fail their patients. I’m sure that the fight on terror could use more resources, if security is your thing. There is only so much the intelligence forces can do on their current budget. There are plenty of better, more cost-effective ways to spend this cash.
It is not inconceivable to rid Britain of nuclear weaponry. Indeed, Labour have already started such a programme with the 1998 Strategic Defence Review. The numbers of warheads maintained was dropped by a third to 200; nuclear submarines were limited to 48 warheads, from 96 (though due to technological advances, this was actually a 50% increase on the Trident predecessor) and maintenance of other types of nuclear delivery systems, such as “free-fall” aircraft weaponry, was discontinued. True, this is a moderate reduction, but even this sadly strikes Britain out ahead of the other four permanent members of the UN Security Council – also the other four designated Nuclear Weapon States on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. In fact, this is the very treaty that obliges us to reduce our nuclear holdings. The three pillars of the Non-Proliferation Treaty include disarmament, requiring a “treaty on general and complete disarmament”. Of course, none of the Nuclear Weapon States have done any such thing – any such discussion over the last three decades has been shelved on one pretext or another.
What would happen to Britain if she were to shed her nuclear capabilities? Would she be endlessly bombarded with nukes from manifold enemy states? Would she be vulnerable to invasion? Well, dang, the 186 UN-recognised non-nuclear countries seem to get by okay. And maybe if we can step out in front of the pack by disarming our nuclear capabilities, we can start leading the world towards a more peaceful future. Britain may not be a military superpower, but she could be a moral one.