Note: this little aide-memoir is offered as a prompt for those who might be spokespeople for Scrap Trident re the demo and blockade in April. It is not meant to be prescriptive and the hope is that there will be many diverse voices giving their own reasons for resistance.
Why the Protests?
Many if not most people in Scotland are against the UK deploying nuclear weapons and replacing Trident. The Scrap Trident Coalition is planning these protest events so that people can express their opposition by gathering en masse in Glasgow and by shutting down the Faslane base for a day.
Trident was a huge issue during the independence referendum campaign and is still centre stage (among NO as well as YES voters), especially since it may feature as a critical issue after the general election in May. Yet we want political leaders to be in absolutely no doubt about the strength of feeling on this among ordinary people. We also want to strengthen the hands of political leaders who are talking about taking a strong line against Trident.
We also want to sharpen people’s awareness of just what kind of weapon Trident is – a weapon designed to be dropped on cities as an indiscriminate weapon of mass destruction – with casualties on an unimaginable scale. People think it is just kept in the background like a locked- away gun. It isn’t. Every minute of every day a UK Trident submarine is on patrol, ready at short notice to incinerate millions.
We want Trident-supporting politicians to become honest about their reasons for persisting with it. Those of them who are well informed know that it has no strategic value in a world in which the major security threats cannot be countered with nuclear weapons. Those who are aware of the basic principles of international humanitarian law know that its indiscriminate nature makes it illegal. What some of them may cling to is the belief that possession of nuclear weapons gives the UK some kind of macho status in the world – allows it to kid itself on it is playing with the big boys. For many, if not most, it is simply fear of the scorn of the tabloid press.
The dishonesty is displayed clearly in the way that many millions have already been spent on the new Trident, long before Parliament has voted on the policy. It is also manifested in talk of an “independent” deterrent when everyone knows that without crucial input from the US in the form of the missiles (which are leased from the US) and vital expertise of warhead manufacture the system would not exist.
And Trident is not in fact a single issue. It is a key part of the things we want to change in Scotland and the UK. It sums up the UK’s outdated approach to relations with the rest of the world, an approach that puts threats before peaceful co-operation. In the context of other savage cuts to services and talk of “constraints” it is a public sector sacred cow. It stands for hatred rather than social justice, for environmental devastation rather than care for the planet.
We want the weapons to be taken off the submarines and returned to Burghfield and Aldermaston to be dismantled and rendered safe. We want the Coulport site to be cleared, de-contaminated and restored. All this will take years to accomplish, requiring a workforce for a number of years. In recent days MoD personnel in the two bases have become more open about their growing unease over Trident. The UK’s nukes have never been on a shakier nail. We want to give that nail a big shoogle.
The UK’s nuclear arsenal is a version of the US Trident. The missiles used in the system are so accurate that they can be used as a “first-strike” weapon. This means they can be used to attack enemy installations in the hope of preventing a counter strike. This makes the system more dangerous since it – theoretically – could be used without the absolute guarantee of destructive retaliation, so gaining – theoretically – a strategic advantage.
Each warhead is around 8 times as powerful as the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima and each missile can deliver a number of these warheads. They are designed to attack cities and cause enormous loss of life and hideous suffering for survivors.
The missiles are carried on four Vanguard class submarines. At any time one of these subs is on active patrol and ready at short notice to fire its missiles. The subs are berthed at Faslane near Glasgow and warheads not carried on the subs are stored in the vast complex of the Coulport base a few miles further west on Loch Long. The warheads require regular servicing and for this purpose (among others) they are carried back to Burghfield and Aldermaston in Berkshire in long military convoys that are regularly seen on our roads. Although the warheads are not primed while being transported they contain both plutonium and high explosive and the MoD has admitted that the possibility of an actual nuclear detonation, however remote the likelihood, cannot be ruled out.
The missiles themselves are not UK owned but are leased from the US. They cannot be removed from the subs within the UK – that can only happen at the US base in King’s Bay, Georgia. The entire system depends on the sharing of nuclear weapon expertise with the US and there have been claims that should a missile be fired it would depend for its targeting on US communication systems. Its claimed status as an “independent” deterrent is therefore a myth.
It is part of UK strategy to keep the threat from its nuclear arsenal alive and visible. During the early days of the 2003 Iraq war the then UK defence secretary, Geoff Hoon, threatened to use nuclear weapons should chemical weapons be deployed against British troops. The government is also careful to ensure that the existence of the weapons is not forgotten. While this is not as blatant a posturing as the May Day parades of missiles in the old Soviet Union, it serves an identical purpose. The UK’s nuclear arsenal is actively and threateningly deployed.
Out of a workforce at Faslane/Coulport of around 7000 only just over 500 are directly dependent on Trident. Should a decision be made to remove Trident from the Clyde many if not most of these jobs would still be required for many years to undertake site security and clearing. For a full treatment of this issue see http://www.cnduk.org/information/briefings/trident-briefings/item/956-trident-jobs-and-the-uk-economy.
If the UK is to continue with Trident the current fleet of subs will need to be replaced within the next ten years or so. The UK government is planning to renew the system to include a new fleet of subs and re-designed warheads. To build the new subs will cost at least £20 billion, new warheads a further £20 billion, running costs for the expected life of the new system in excess of £80 billion, on conservative estimates.
Although the UK government has already undertaken extensive and expensive projects at AWE Aldermaston directed at renewal the formal decision (known as Main Gate) will not be taken by the Westminster Parliament until next year, making the general election in May especially significant.
Tories, Labour and the Liberal Democrats all favour renewal, albeit, in the Lib Dems case, with a reduced number of subs.
International humanitarian law forbids the use, or the threat to use, weapons which cannot discriminate between civilians and military targets and/or which cause widespread environmental damage. Of course, the various legal jurisdictions within the UK have found ways of confusing the un-missable conclusion that this covers Trident. Although this cynicism means that UK courts will generally not listen to arguments against Trident based on international law the existence of the law does place an obligation on any political jurisdiction, however otherwise limited its formal constitutional powers, and indeed on individual citizens, to challenge the breach.
“An uncertain world”
Probably the most popular reason given by Trident supporters. In a chaotic and quickly changing world retaining our biggest weapon is seen as a reasonable precaution. The attraction of the argument breaks down as soon as we consider what the current threats are, even the conventionally accepted ones, such as ruthless insurgent movements, cyber warfare and failed states, where nuclear weapons have no leverage. Many in the military establishment accept this.
The same goes for other risks and threats, less often mentioned, such as the lunatic fragility of international finance structures, climate change, famine, disease and the desperation these may bring.
It will be argued that the increase in tension between Russia and Nato makes retention advisable. This argument dodges the need to look at security in a fundamental and radical way, especially the urgent need to develop cross-world collaboration, to devote attention to causes as well as symptoms, to develop the skills of conflict resolution. That this tension needs to be urgently slackened is beyond a doubt. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists’ Doomsday Clock is now set at 3 minutes to midnight.
Nuclear weapons distract us from attending to real security and are in themselves promoters of radical uncertainty.
There is also the fundamental moral question. Are you prepared personally, under any security justification, to press a button that would set in train the mass murder of human beings, including children, and , if not, are you happy for others to press that button on your behalf?
Famously, this one was given in his memoir by Tony Blair, along with an admission that none of the other arguments hold water. Nor does this one. There is the doubtful claim that possession of nukes guarantees a seat on the UN Security Council. Anyway, it is about giving the UK status and influence in the world which it would not have if it didn’t regularly parade a valid set of nukes.
There are two points to be made about this. Even if nukes do mean influence on “the world stage” is the possession of weapons of mass murder a reasonable price to pay for the privilege? And what guarantees do we have that such influence would be benign? Recent history would suggest otherwise.
At a deeper level it may be that a visceral element in the pro –Trident stance is an unspoken and unarticulated realisation that the UK ‘s sovereignty is increasingly fragile and that Trident represents some kind of insane but iconic bulwark against its collapse, like Israel’s apartheid wall. This lines Trident up with immigration panic and frantic searches for British identity.
An argument with particular traction in the local area around Faslane/Coulport. See above (Trident Facts).
There are many dubious enterprises that provide jobs, such as drug dealing, debt collecting, battery farming etc. What we are asking is that we apply the same approach to jobs currently supplied by Trident as we do to these other enterprises. The positive approach is first, the recognition that the jobs are unethical and should cease, and second, that those involved should have the opportunity of decent work, that is, work with a decent return, work that is inherently rewarding, work with a decent outcome.
At the same time we have to recognise that many workers at Faslane/Coulport do grapple with this issue and deserve our support and understanding in doing so, especially since the alternative means at the present moment of providing for their families are difficult to find. Indeed we have noted that in recent times Mod workers at Faslane have been more ready to talk about this and their dislike of the work and its purposes. So we should not be too ready to squat on the high moral ground.
What politicians make of it is another matter entirely.
Multilateral and Unilateral
Trident advocates will say that they are against nuclear weapons but that the only way to proceed is to work together with all the nuclear weapon states to agree a planned and mutual abolition. They would further argue that the time the threat of proliferation – new states acquiring nukes – means that any successful multilateral banning agreement is somewhere in the future. In practical terms this means that they will do nothing and be content to kick the issue into the long grass.
They claim that it does not make sense for one state to unilaterally abolish its nukes. Two points. There are many successful states world-wide which do neither possess nukes nor seek to shelter under another’s nuclear umbrella. The claim is also like saying that it does not make sense for one country to drive out organised crime – it has to be a world-wide response. There is a half-truth in that. To persist with the organised crime analogy, it would need a world-wide response to unravel it all. But, it is unthinkable that any state with the will and the power to chase organised crime from its borders would refrain from doing so, simply because it wasn’t happening elsewhere. Such an act would also provide an impetus for others to copy and for global collaboration on the issue to become more likely.
In this context, Scotland, in spite of the NO vote in last year’s referendum, is seen worldwide as a hanging thread in the nuke fabric that can be tugged to begin the unravelling of the whole thing. So our modest protests on the streets of Glasgow and the gates of Faslane can have global significance.
The Hidden Reason
This is particularly applicable to the stance of the Labour Party. It is the fear of the “Daily Mail Factor” – the fear that tabloid screams about a Labour U-turn would make them unelectable. The irony is that it is precisely the failure to make this U-turn which is likely to make them unelectable in Scotland.