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Trident Replacement – Why Tony Blair Should Just Say No

What is it that robs politicians of their sense of irony as soon as they reach high office? You would think the Prime Minister would see that right now, when we are lecturing Iran about breaking the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty might not be the best time to start talking about breaking it ourselves. But that’s precisely what Tony Blair intends to do.
Indeed, we are breaking it already. As The Sunday Times confirmed at the weekend, the nuclear weapons research centre in Aldermaston is already developing a replacement warhead for our ageing submarine-based Trident missile system. And yes, replacing nuclear weapons with new and better ones is a breach of the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty, which commits nations “not to modernise or increase the size of nuclear arsenals”. Just ask Cherie Blair’s legal team at Matrix Chambers who are experts on the NPT.
Indeed, item 4 (c) of the 1970 Treaty commits governments, not just to preventing proliferation but to “active nuclear disarmament” – ie getting rid of the damn things. But, then, disarmament is for towel heads. Real countries like Britain and America need what are called “Reliable Replacement Warheads”, which means spending billions on developing more efficient means of wiping out entire continents.
For, of course, Trident is a weapon system rooted in the Cold War, and designed to obliterate the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union doesn’t exist any more, and you might have thought that the government could find better ways to spend twenty billion than on replacing a weapons system which can never be used. But we still need a reliable replacement, just in case.
America has another wheeze for getting round the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty. The Pentagon has spent $23 million on what is called a “robust nuclear earth penetrator”, or bunker-busting bomb. Donald Rumsfeld, a leading advocate of the system, insists it is a purely defensive weapon, and therefore not a case of nuclear proliferation.
This is a bit like saying: this gun I am holding is purely defensive and designed to penetrate your brain in order to stop you killing me. But no, you can’t have one too because you can’t be trusted with it. In diplomatic circles this kind of thinking is called “American exceptionalism” ie – what America does is by definition right. Others call it plain hypocrisy.
Alarmed by the implications, the US Congress tried to cut the funding of the “robust penetrator” last year, but the defence analysts Jane’s Information Group believes it lives on under another name. Incredibly, America has actually doubled its spending on nuclear weapons development since the end of he Cold War, and is now spending 6.5 billion dollars a year. So, now you know where the peace dividend went.
But the world political balance has altered since the end of the Cold War. The logic of deterrence no longer applies – or rather it does but in dramatically different forms. For example, if Donald Rumsfeld were privately advising the Iranian government right now, he would probably be arguing that, to retain the balance in the Middle East, it is imperative that Iran gets the bomb. It is surrounded by nuclear states: Israel, Pakistan, India. The old logic of Mutual and Assured Destruction, on which American defence policy was based for decades, regards this is an inherently unstable situation..
I hasten to add that I do not subscribe to MAD myself, and the thought of Iranian Ayatollahs spreading the Prophet’s word by nuclear fission is a terrifying one. However, President Ahmedinejad isn’t a fool, just because he doesn’t wear a tie. He realises that nuclear brinksmanship plays well in the Muslim world precisely because it exposes Western double standards.
Islamic countries don’t have nuclear weapons (apart from Pakistan, which doesn’t count) so non-proliferation can be presented by radical Muslims as essentially non-proliferation-to-Islam.
After all, Britain and America gave Israel the bomb. Doesn’t this show there is a Judaeo-Christian nuclear crusade against Islam? No it doesn’t – but try telling that to the Tehran street.
Which brings us back to the renewal of the British bomb, currently under investigation by Defence Select Committee. It won’t need to investigate long – just read the Prime Minister’s TV promise during the general election campaign, to “retain Britain’s nuclear deterrent”. Tells you all you need to know. Retaining means renewing, means improving, means two fingers to the NPT. It will signal the start of another cycle of nuclear proliferation.
There must be a better way. There is, and the former foreign secretary Robin Cook, argued it before he died. Britain could use her ageing Trident fleet far more effectively by allowing it to rust in peace. Tony Blair could assume a role of real leadership of the world by announcing that Britain was not going to replace Trident, a ludicrous and wasteful system, but was going to use the resourses instead to promote real disarmament.
A leading nuclear nation like Britain could exert great moral influence if it chose so to do. We could act as global nuclear brokers in territorial disputes which threaten to turn nuclear, such as Kashmir, which nearly led to atomic war between Pakistan and India. Or North Korea, which has signalled a willingness to relinquish the bomb.
With our nuclear expertise Britain could help countries disarm, and advise on using nuclear technology for civil purposes. We could even offer to reprocess Iran’s uranium in exchange for weapons inspectors to monitor their nuclear facilities. Better us than the Russians. There is a real opportunity here.
It might even win votes. This may seem a small point in the great debate, but a majority of people in Scotland want rid of Trident also. As we approach T-day, the Scottish Parliament should be taking the initiative and expressing its own moral position, just as it has on matters like asylum seekers and immigration. There is nothing that says the Scottish Executive has to be party to a breach of the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty on Scottish soil.
Unilateralism works. If Mikhail Gorbachev hadn’t agreed unilaterally to start dismantling the Soviet nuclear arsenal, the Cold War wouldn’t have ended when it did. South Africa gave up her nuclear weapons, and so did the Ukraine – all they needed were incentives. As for Britain’s influence in the Security Council of the UN, which is reserved for nuclear nations, well, we’d still have the damn things for thirty years. Anyway, Britain’s deterrent was never truly independent, and could only be used on the orders of the White House.
So come on Tony. Here is a chance for a real legacy, a place in history. When it comes to Trident renewal: Just say no.

About @iainmacwhirter

I'm a columnist for the Herald. Author of "Road to Referendum" and "Disunited Kingdom". Was a BBC TV and radio presenter for 25 years - "Westminster Live" and "Holyrood Live" mainly. Spent time as columnist for The Observer, Guardian, New Statesman. Former Rector of Edinburgh University. Live in Edinburgh and spend a lot of time in the French Pyrenees. Will that do?


2 thoughts on “Trident Replacement – Why Tony Blair Should Just Say No

  1. Good to see these articles appearing online. Keep up the blog!

    Posted by Iain | March 26, 2006, 4:00 pm
  2. I think renewing the nuclear weapons sets a bad example to the rest of the world, but we must still have some just in case. We should use this as a launch pad to begin the disarmament process read more below:The not nuclear option.

    Posted by Political Teenager | June 22, 2006, 6:10 pm

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