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Why British politicians find it so hard to vote against nuclear weapons

PA/Danny Lawson

Why British politicians find it so hard to vote against nuclear weapons

In 1982, Robert Lifton and Richard Falk wrote about the condition of “nuclearism” – the idea that nuclear weapons can solve our political, strategic and social problems and that they are an essential means of ensuring peace.

This ideology is based on a series of illusions. It rests on the assumption that the use of nuclear weapons can be managed, that their effects can be controlled, and that protection and recovery in a nuclear war are meaningful ideas. Nuclearism thrives despite the absence of compelling evidence about the security benefits of nuclear weapons.

It is argued that the nuclear deterrence prevented the Cold War from turning into all out war. But as academic Benoît Pelopidas argues:

The nuclear peace is not a fact. It is a hypothesis trying to link two observable facts: the existence of nuclear weapons in the world since 1945 and the absence of war between the United States and the Soviet Union during the same period. The nuclear peace hypothesis faces the challenge of proving a negative. In these circumstances, faith in the nuclear peace becomes a bet or a matter of trust.

He also reminds us that proxy wars raged throughout the Cold War, regardless of the deterrent, killing several million people.

A powerful attachment

Symptoms of nuclearism abound in UK politics, particularly in Westminster. The two main political parties – Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s opposition is the exception rather the rule – display a deep commitment to retaining nuclear weapons based on a faith in the necessity and reliability of nuclear deterrence for national security.

And sure enough, in the latest opportunity to debate the Trident nuclear weapon system, MPs have voted to push ahead with a like-for-like replacement by 472 votes to 117. The system will be renewed with the procurement of four replacement ballistic missile submarines. Corbyn voted against renewal but was largely defied by his party. Only 47 of its 230 MPs voted with him.

MPs often speak of Trident as the “ultimate insurance” – a guarantee of protection against nuclear strikes. They describe the idea of getting rid of this expensive system as a “reckless gamble” – to use Prime Minister Theresa May’s favoured term.

They speak less openly about it, but MPs also justify Trident replacement in terms the number of jobs that could be lost if Britain relinquished nuclear weapons and how Trident reflects the sort of country Britain thinks it is. The possession of nuclear weapons is bound up with notions of being a major power in global politics and a key player in NATO, resisting Russian aggression. With Trident, the narrative goes, Britain remains the ally of choice for the United States and a force for good in the world.

Together, nuclearism, national identity and the local politics of jobs and industry have kept UK nuclear weapons policy on a path of least resistance towards replacement.

It seems unlikely now that momentum behind replacing Trident will falter. There was a period in 2014 when disillusionment with austerity, the possibility of Scottish independence, and a firmer push against nuclearism by the Liberal Democrats in coalition and Labour under Ed Miliband could have aligned to shift the debate, but that moment has passed – at least for now.

It might return but it will require three developments. First, the UK will need to loosen its attachment to nuclear weapons. This does not mean jettisoning internationalism, but it does mean a shift away from the idea that nuclear weapons are a “requirement” in terms of threats the country faces and how it thinks it should act in the world. Such a shift could be hastened by the negotiation of an international treaty banning nuclear weapons that has gathered significant momentum.

Second, the renewal project’s price tag – currently estimated to be £31bn plus £10bn contingency – would also need to be questioned further. That’s possible if Brexit has a lasting impact on GDP, the cost of the Trident replacement project continues to rise, and conventional defence forces continue to be cut. A decision could be reached that the economy cannot, or should not, bear the weight of another generation of nuclear weaponry, or that the opportunity costs for defence are simply too great. The unions and industry could be placated with the promise of additional nuclear-powered but conventionally-armed attack submarines.

Corbyn is staunchly opposed to nuclear weapons, unlike his MPs. PA/AnthonyDevline

And finally, it will require a change in NATO’s relationship with Russia. Russian military actions over the past few years have been used to justify keeping Trident as a necessary deterrent. The efficacy of UK nuclear deterrent threats in this context is questionable, but the trope of Russian aggression requiring NATO nuclear resistance is a familiar and superficially appealing one.

Unless and until a mutually acceptable security relationship between NATO and Moscow can be re-established and more firmly institutionalised, invoking the Russian “enemy” will continue to galvanise popular support for Trident.

Fading hope

If these changes were realised, they could sufficiently reduce the perceived value of nuclear weapons. However, as time passes, the Trident successor project develops, and sunk costs increase. That makes it less likely that any future government would abandon the project. This is what happened to the incoming New Labour government in 1997, which came to power just as the current Trident system was being completed. It was too late for it to see the point in putting the breaks on even if it had wanted to.

That said, the shadow of the SNP hangs over the entire successor programme. Upgrading Trident is, in effect, a gamble that Scotland will remain in the Union for at least the next few decades. The price of new facilities to host Trident submarines and warheads south of the border in the event of a successful second independence referendum could tip the cost of maintaining the UK’s nuclear weapons enterprise over the edge.

Technological and ideological continuity look set to characterise UK nuclear weapons policy for now. This latest debate saw MPs pass another “decision in principle” and further work is now likely to be authorised.

Disruption to that process will hinge on cost, identity conceptions, Scotland and perhaps an international legal prohibition on nuclear weapons. That’s a tall order, but we shouldn’t stop pushing for debate and change.