The Great Nuclear Debate


Something unusual is to happen during the current session of parliament.  There is to be a fair and open debate, open to the public, the Labour Party and parliament, on whether to order a successor to Britain’s nuclear weapon, or, presumably, whether to scrap it, as the third alternative, carrying on with an outdated weapon of mass destruction, would be unacceptably dangerous. So the forthcoming debate is really about committing Britain to nuclear weapons far into the future, or taking the opportunity to fulfil the promise made under the NPT and rejoin the great majority of nations without nuclear weapons.  The only snag is that the debate may be as managed as was the debate on Iraq, where information was withheld, and scare tactics were used to ensure a result desired by government.  That ‘debate’ resulted in giving the decision to invade Iraq a spurious democratic credential.  The same may happen with nuclear weapons.


The debate will be unusual, in that there is to be a debate at all.  The track record of our nuclear ‘deterrent’ is one of secrecy and outright deceit, somehow suitable to the subject.  The original decision to go nuclear was made secretly, by Attlee.  Neither cabinet nor parliament was consulted.  Then came the secret decision to upgrade Polaris with Chevaline.  Prime ministers involved were Wilson, Heath, Callaghan and Thatcher.  It was only when the expense of the upgrade became too huge to hide any longer (£1.2 billion) that Chevaline was forced out into the open.  In 1980 the Conservative government simply announced the intention to upgrade to Trident.  No debate there.  Then Thatcher, consulting only with her minister Francis Pym, gave permission for US nuclear-armed cruise missiles to be sited in Britain.  In order to replace Trident, the mutual defence agreement with the United States, which ran out at the end of 2004, had to be renewed.  It was renewed, ‘on the nod’ without a debate.  So an open, fair debate in parliament and even with the public, as has been promised, seems too good to be true.


Perhaps such openness has been forced upon leaders since the debacle of the Iraq war – another scandal cannot be risked so soon.  Or perhaps the result of the debate has been calculated in advance, and leaders are confident that there is little risk of failure.  It is this possibility that has to be taken most seriously.  As recently as July ’04 Defence Secretary Reid announced: ‘The government remain committed to maintaining the effectiveness of the nuclear deterrent, including making the necessary investment at the Atomic Weapons Establishment’. [1]  Money has recently been allocated for a replacement for HELEN (High Energy Laser Embodying Neandymium).  The work requires planning permission from West Berkshire Council, and CND has asked residents of the area to object on health and other grounds, but permission, always seeming certain, has now been granted.  The new laser will be a blatant waste of public money if the forthcoming debate results in cancellation of Trident! Or perhaps they can think of another use for a powerful laser that replicates conditions of a nuclear explosion.


Reid has already stated his view that Britain needs the upgraded nuclear weapon so as to ‘deter’ future attacks of unspecified nature – Cold War thinking that would ensure a return of nuclear brinkmanship.  He ignores the current threat, made in a plainly stated US policy document ‘Joint Nuclear Operations’ (for details see Full Spectrum Dominance in this issue), that nuclear weapons are being considered for actual use against non-nuclear nations, in flagrant breach of international law as stated in the World Court judgement.  The official thinking, such as it is, rejects any progress towards a nuclear-free world.  And Iraq has shown that official thinking is very likely to get its way, debate or no debate. 


The importance of the coming debate can hardly be overestimated.  If settled fairly, there would be an excellent chance of getting rid of Trident.  As Peter Preston, former editor of the Guardian put it in a recent article:[2]  ‘Our non-independent old missiles give us a bit of status, a bit of woolly public reassurance, a bit of summit swagger.  Why change anything?  But everything, just like the oil price, is changing minute by minute.’


A debate that resulted in getting rid of our nuclear weapon would have two major consequences.  First, we would rejoin the non-nuclear world and show the way towards world nuclear disarmament.  Second, a victory over the plainly expressed determination of the prime minister and his Executive would be a powerful victory for British democracy.  It would prove that we had elected a proper parliament, and not an oligarchy.


[1] From the annual report AWE ‘04

[2] 16/09/05