28 October 2012

After six decades of the British Bomb, are nuclear weapons still a game changer for the UK?

Sir Nick Harvey’s suggestion just before the Conservative conference that the replacement of Trident wasn’t quite such a sure thing generated the usual flurry of articles in the press. I do feel rather sorry for Fleet Street’s defence editors, who have had to flog this poor dead horse for decades – last week marked the 60th anniversary of Operation Hurricane, the first testing of a British-built nuclear weapon. Unfortunately the political consensus built around our nuclear weapons since then has seen very little discussion of what they are actually for – or acknowledgment that their original development had little to do with the direct defence of the realm.

Newspaper report of Britain's successful nuclear test 
The primary reason behind the cash-strapped Attlee government’s decision to build a British bomb back in 1946 is not one that many people today would be familiar with. Ernest Bevin (Attlee’s Foreign Secretary) had just returned from Washington where he had been spoken down to by the Truman administration – the post-WW2 reality of Britain’s diminished status setting in with uncomfortable haste. Bevin’s intervention swung the debate in cabinet, with his now famous utterance that ‘I do not want any other Foreign Secretary of this country to be talked at, or to, as I was. We’ve got to have this thing over here, whatever it costs. We’ve got to have the bloody Union Jack on top of it.’ The nuclear issue had focused British minds on Washington rather than Moscow, and atomic weapons were the cost of entering the superpower club of the 1950s (although they still didn’t guarantee access to the VIP room).

60 years later our nuclear weapons are now routinely referred to as a ‘deterrent’. And perhaps they did deter the Soviet Union to some degree during the Cold War. But the primary reason Britain secured nuclear weapons was to ensure that Bevin and his successors stood alongside America at the pinnacle of global diplomatic power during the polarised Blue versus Red era that mercifully came to an end in 1991.

Today’s security challenges are rather different, but it helps to cast our minds back to the original decision to become a nuclear weapons state when making the case for a new generation of weapons. Does Trident help maintain our position as an important player in the world’s affairs? I’m not so sure that it does. Our place at the top table is more likely to be secured by enhancing our overworked conventional military capabilities that bolster our diplomacy, rather than sending a boatload of Armageddon off for months of hiding in the depths of the oceans. Either way, the debate about the future of our nuclear weapons needs to be conducted with greater honesty, and we must be clear as to whether Trident’s replacement (in whatever form) passes the Bevin test: is it really a game changer for Britain’s power and influence?

First published by Platform 10 on October 14th, 2012