Simon Fern: No, the UK cannot justify the existence of Trident in the wake of other disasters
Accepting the existence of Trident means accepting the consequences of its use; before all other arguments comes the matter of whether or not you agree with the potential for the mass extermination of human life. Passchendaele, Hiroshima, Auschwitz, Poitiers, or Stalingrad – each of these places has come to mean more than the relatively small area of land it refers to, these names immediately bring to mind unparalleled dread. On the day we deploy what is clinically referred to as the nuclear deterrent, we will name not a city or a field, not a county or a province, but a whole nation or subcontinent. We will not write the history of Trident’s deployment in the scope of minutes, hours, days or months but in decades – the destruction it will wreak will stain our collective humanity for so long as we exist as a species.
Depending on the estimate you take, between 1.1 and 1.5 million humans were murdered in Auschwitz. Were a bomb to be dropped on Moscow tomorrow, 11.92 million lives would be extinguished either through the direct impact of the blast, which would immediately kill over 780,000 children in central Moscow, or through the longer term effects of the radiation emitted.
In my last year at college my history teacher lent me his copy of W.G Sebald’s On The Natural History of Destruction – it still comes to mind on a near weekly basis. Sebald talks of the sheer insensibility of the mass violence which visited the people of Germany during the Second World War. There are no words, images or narratives which could ever address the scale of death and the extent of ruin. Sebald recounts a story of a 16 year old girl who, as a helper on the railway, saw refugees leave Hamburg “unable to speak of what had happened, struck dumb or sobbing and weeping with despair”, with several of the refugees carrying the charred remains of their children, suffocated by the fire, in their luggage. These images are incomprehensible to those of us blessed to grow up in peacetime, but their weight should haunt us all the same – if this could be accomplished 70 years ago with conventional weapons, then there is no good human soul who could let what technological modernity has developed loose on the world.
We talk of renewing Trident in terms of the employment it brings for skilled labourers, especially in Glasgow; we discuss how it assures us a place on the United Nations Security Council and allows us to punch above our weight in international diplomacy. Trident apologists essentially invoke arguments tantamount to the colonial idea of “the white man’s burden”, that this weapon is our dreadful responsibility to wield as protectors of liberal democracy. Ghosts of the Cold War are resurrected when we talk of the way Trident protects us from Russia’s advance, and the nuclear deterrent is cited as our only safeguard against the collapse of global security.Yes, perhaps there is a need for a conventional military deterrent at times of global insecurity – but there are some things which should never be an option or a factor, too unholy are their implications, Trident is one of them.
Sit in a park in any city, imagine that in a moment every leaf could be stripped from the trees, the children dead and the buildings in rubble, and for miles around you only fire and then silence before the ‘lucky’ survivors are hauled away to fill cancer wards across the country. That is the vision you sanction when you defend Trident.
Robert Sutton-Mattocks: Yes, Trident is a necessary affirmation of Britain’s role in international politics
The British government is a force for good in the world and the British government needs Trident. These are not contradictory statements. The need for Trident submarine renewal is not clear-cut and cannot be easily measured. Trident’s influence is subtle. A subtlety that only a weapon that must never be used can ever achieve. The power of Trident’s replacement should not be measured in terms of what it can do, but what it can prevent.
A quarter of a century may have passed since the Cold War and the jubilant scenes as the Berlin Wall fell, but the danger has not. Britain still needs an independent nuclear deterrent; it is the ultimate guarantee of the UK’s security. In 2015, Europe still sits side by side with the Russian Bear and one that has thrown off its cuddly image of late. Vladimir Putin is at the helm of an expansionist Russia and one which threatens European territorial integrity. As a Nato state and member of the European Community, Trident is integral in standing up to Russian aggression and sending a message that Britain is serious about combatting Russian expansion. Trident is not just for Britain but for those in the Ukraine and our European partners in the Baltic States who fear for their independence. Try telling the Lithuanians that the Cold War is over, as they introduce conscription for the first time in their national history in response to Putin’s muscle-flexing.
So why should we spend £90bn on a weapon that should never be used? The answers, as always, are both economic and political. Trident renewal is vital to the high-skill economy in the UK. As a nation, we have let our nuclear expertise dwindle and years of a chronic lack of investment have seen a huge loss of talent in the British nuclear sector. It is particularly tragic that a country which pioneered nuclear energy, by building the first commercial nuclear power station in 1956, should see its latest nuclear reactors built by French experts using Chinese money. Thankfully we still can harness British talent in military technology and Trident renewal would be a significant boost. One forgets that one of the greatest achievements of the Nasa programme was not the first man on the moon, but the chance discovery of CAT Scanners, invented to detect imperfections in space components, which have saved hundreds of lives from cancer. Investment in pioneering military technology is an investment in scientific discovery in all fields.
Finally, Trident renewal reaffirms Britain’s position at the top table of international politics. As one of five Permanent Members of the UN Security Council, the UK needs to justify its position not only with substantial ‘Soft Power’, but backed up with tangible ‘Hard Power’ as well. To be a veto wielding nation is a position of great responsibility and it is important that there is a strong liberal and democratic voice at the heart of the UN. Trident is one part of that arsenal which reinforces the UK’s position and allows the UK to set an example to the world on issues such as climate change, human rights and gender equality.
The Trident renewal will last 30 years at a cost of £90 billion. With my astonishing grasp of mathematics this works out at £3bn annually. When compared to the annual UK budget of about £750bn, it comes to a mere 0.4 per cent per year of government spending. It is a small price to pay to secure the UK’s long term security, influence in the world and economic strength in high-skilled industries.
Image: ‘Defence Images’