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Beneath all of the hate crimes, murder, police brutality, and COVID-related developments in the news lately, there’s another troubling headline you may have missed – the government are increasing the UK’s cap on nuclear warheads.
This will end decades of nuclear disarmament and flush tax revenue into new weapons of mass destruction.
Since the end of the Cold War, the UK’s Trident nuclear programme is more of a fossil than ever. This show of aggression by the government is just the latest in a long line of ‘defence’ policies aimed at asserting the UK’s (fragile) masculinity on the world stage.
The Trident programme was first established in 1980, composed of four submarines based at Clyde Naval Base (against the wishes of the Scottish government), with missiles purchased from the US and at least one submarine always at sea in order to strike at anywhere in the world, like something out of a dystopian novel.
This constant threat of mass destruction, rather than being consigned to the ash heap of history, is now being proliferated thanks to the government’s decision to increase its nuclear stockpile for the first time in decades.
As it is, the programme has and continues to be a black hole in the public purse, with even the most conservative estimates predicting that maintaining and modernising the nuclear programme will cost more than £179 billion. In a time when public sector workers are having to beg for the smallest of pay raises and COVID has the economy on its knees, doubling down on devices capable of levelling entire cities shouldn’t be taking priority.
And what about opposition?
The Greens, SNP, and Plaid Cymru are all in favour of scrapping Trident. But Labour? Forget it. The Shadow Defence Secretary has recently said, “Labour’s support for the UK’s nuclear deterrent is non-negotiable.” Labour leader, Keir Starmer, has consistently voted to preserve Trident but objects to lifting the stockpile cap as if having weapons of mass destruction is somehow permissible if there are fewer than 180.
The Prime Minister retorted to this meagre objection with the time-old masquerade of “standing up for our armed forces”, despite the fact that sinking billions into bombs that will likely never be used provides no material benefit to the people he claims to be standing up for.
The prevailing justification for continuing the programme is that it keeps us safe, but does it really?
The nuclear deterrent did nothing to prevent any of the attacks against the UK between now and its introduction in the 1950s, and the billions spent in maintaining it could be far better spent addressing more pressing concerns like cyberattacks. Aside from being ethically repugnant, nuclear weapons are now illegal under international law. Rather hypocritically, the UK is a signatory in the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, which this latest action violates, and once declared war on Iraq under the pretext of disarming alleged weapons of mass destruction.
The fact of the matter is, the government possesses over a hundred nuclear warheads, with each warhead estimated by The Guardian to have an explosive power of around 100 kilotons. To put that into perspective, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima was a small 15 kilotons and killed over 126,000 civilians.
No institution should possess that kind of power. The government’s renewed efforts to sink billions into proving its own importance to the international community is another reminder that it’s long past time we ban the bomb.
Total nuclear disarmament is not without precedent. South Africa in the 90s completely dismantled its nuclear arsenal and joined the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Is it really so unthinkable to disarm and dismantle 180 weapons of mass destruction? Or is it just that clinging on to the ability to wipe entire cities off the map is the only way the empire-less UK can once again feel important?
Trying to monopolise the threat of thermonuclear annihilation is causing more harm than good. Take the Iran nuclear deal, struck between Iran, the US, UK, Russia, China, France, and Germany to curtail Iran’s nuclear programme in exchange for lifting the economic sanctions on Iran. The Trump administration withdrew from the agreement in 2018, unilaterally reimposing sanctions, and since then diplomatic tensions with Iran have spiked, with no signs of the deal being salvaged or a new deal being brokered.
The US, UK, Russia, China, and France are the only legally-recognised nuclear weapons states according to the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The treaty demands that they all commit to disarmament but has no means to force them to do anything at all. This fundamental power imbalance, where a select few are allowed to possess weapons of mass destruction, is what threatens Iran and North Korea into pursuing their nuclear programmes at all costs. The government’s lifting of the stockpile cap further impedes any diplomatic progress in restoring the Iran nuclear deal.
In other words, ending disarmament is putting us in more danger.
If you want further proof that the UK’s nuclear programme has only been about asserting the government’s weakened sense of power and prestige, look no further than the Defence Policy Committee’s 1954 statement that the purpose of the programme was to “strengthen our position as a world power so that Her Majesty’s Government can exercise a powerful influence in the counsels of the world.”
It was never about defence; it was always about power and control.
So, while the government tries to suppress protests and put statues before people, be aware that there is another threat of violence that is a cornerstone of government policy. This threat of mass destruction is a relic of colonialist notions of superiority and it threatens us all.