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The Trident White Paper - 1. the policy context

Jim Devine MP speaking in Livingston on the Long Walk for Peace

Tony Blair’s foreword to the White Paper - The Future of the UK’s Nuclear Deterrent - makes great play on the need for Britain to have ‘insurance’ against an uncertain world for the next 50 years. ‘Many of the old certainties and divisions of the Cold War are gone. We cannot predict the way the world will look in 30-50 years time’. In the meantime, he argues, we will face ‘new threats, particularly of regional powers developing nuclear weapons for the first time’ and need to ‘deter countries which might in the future seek to sponsor nuclear terrorism from their soil’ and, therefore, ‘an independent British nuclear deterrent is an essential part of our insurance against the uncertainties and risks of the future.’

It was much easier in the past. Those who had a vested interest in manufacturing fear were able to point out and talk up real threats to Britain’s security throughout most of the last century. During the 1930s for example German and Japanese militarism and ideology were clearly driving towards world war. And during the Cold War, although the arms race was led at every stage by the United States, the Soviet conventional and nuclear forces did present a threat to the UK even if the West posed a far greater threat to them. But since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War the military-industrial complex in the United States and Britain has been struggling to come up with a credible threat to justify the growing arms budgets. And today the notion of pre-emptive war against ‘rogue states’ developing WMDs has been utterly discredited by the disastrous outcomes of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

So now our leaders are forced to manufacture fear through uncertainty. Britain has probably never been safer than it is today. Were an island nation with no natural enemies. No one has territorial claims against us - although Spain and Argentina have legitimate claims on some of our remaining colonial outposts. We are a close ally of the most powerful military power on earth. And we ourselves have a formidable and battle hardened army, navy and airforce. The only significant threat we face is that of international terrorism (and that has everything to do with our role in Iraq and Afghanistan and our support for Israel).


But just as there is no such thing as absolute security, there can be no life without uncertainty. The only thing that is certain in this world is that one day we will all die. But do we face that uncertainty as a nation by planning for peace or planning for war?

The way to cope with unknown threats in the future is not to act in a way which will make these potential threats inevitable - by launching a new arms race. What kind of ‘insurance’ policy is it that actually increases risk rather than reducing it? In other words the search for absolute security by acquiring new nuclear weapons is self defeating. One nation’s enhanced ‘security’ is another nation’s enhanced threat. Just as the War on Terror has created the very threats it was supposed to prevent, by developing new WMDs Britain challenges other nations to follow suit. The only rational way to deal with unknown threats in an uncertain world is by increased international co-operation, strengthening and democratising the United Nations, establishing new nuclear free zones in the Middle East and the Far East and elsewhere, and negotiating with all existing nuclear states for an international treaty on the abolition of nuclear weapons.

But this would not find favour among the business or political elite of Britain or the United States. For the truth is that Trident, like the rest of Britain’s armed forces, was never about defence. It was always about projecting power across the world. And the White Paper, whatever it says, is not about what threats Britain will face from an uncertain world. It is about how Britain, and its senior partner, can control an uncertain world and mould it to serve their interests.

Alan Mackinnon


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