Britain and the Bomb

John Osmond finds a new argument for devolution in the nuclear debate

The late Gwyn Alf Williams, that most charismatic of Welsh historians, used to say, “We won’t get rid of the bomb until we get rid of Britain.” His prediction has been underlined in the past week with the almost total silence that greeted the views of three respected retired soldiers who declared that Britain’s nuclear deterrence is an irrelevance and a waste of money.

On 15 January Lords Bramall and Ramsbotham and Sir Hugh Beach signed a letter to The Times urging the cancellation of the projected £25 billion replacement for Britain’s Trident nuclear system. “Our independent deterrent has become virtually irrelevant except in the context of domestic politics,” they wrote.

As the journalist and defence expert Max Hastings put it in a Guardian piece (19 January), no major British party sees any political advantage in debating this question. In early 2007, ahead of taking over from Tony Blair, Gordon Brown unilaterally declared in favour of renewing Trident – without any party let alone parliamentary debate – presumably to confirm his credentials as being “safe on defence.” In the unlikely event of Cameron opening up the issue he would simply provoke a Conservative party split.

What is the purpose of Britain’s nuclear deterrent? The Government’s 2007 White Paper, making the case for the Trident replacement, mentions the possibility of terrorists gaining weapons of mass destruction. But if a terrorist group launched a nuclear attack against Britain what would be the target for a nuclear retaliation? Would it be, as Hastings speculated, a flat in Karachi, Hamburg or north London?

It was revealing that last week the Conservative chair of the Commons defence select committee, Hampshire MP James Arbuthnot, declared that if it became a non-nuclear power Britain’s permanent UN security council seat would be in jeopardy. That appears to be the argument in a nutshell: Trident is needed to underwrite Britain’s big power status.

Therein lies a further argument for constitutional change and the advance of devolution to re-invent imperial Britain as a new partnership of its component nations. A by-product will be the emergence of a more distinctive English identity. Indeed, this is happening already. Stripped of British pretentiousness, is England likely to harbour the same aspirations for expressing in nuclear terms, and at a cost of billions of pounds, the historical trappings of its imperial past?

Design work for the Trident replacement goes ahead. But the big building decisions will not be taken until around 2013. Let’s hope that by then the devolution process will have advanced far enough to produce the major financial dividend that would accrue from cancellation of an irrelevant, costly, and ultimately dangerous so-called defence system.

John Osmond is Director of the IWA.

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