Sir Humphrey Appleby (HA): It's a deterrent.
Prime Minister (PM): It's a bluff. I probably wouldn't use it.
HA: Yes, but they don't know that you probably wouldn't.
PM: They probably do.
HA: Yes, they probably know that you probably wouldn't but they can't certainly know.
PM: They probably certainly know that I probably wouldn't.
HA: Yes, but even though they probably certainly know that you probably wouldn't, they don't certainly know that although you probably wouldn't, there's no probability that you certainly would.
The best acronym ever contrived must surely be Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). It means that if any state with nuclear weapons fired one of them on another state with nuclear weapons they would be committing national suicide. Which is why no nuclear powers have ever gone to war in the 70 years since the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan ending World War Two.
Given that the major powers never knew what point the other had decided the nuclear threshold had been crossed, it may also be the case – as many believed – that the possession of nuclear weapons has not only prevented nuclear war but has prevented any direct conflict between the major powers. The logic of MAD though depends on the other side not being sure whether – or in what circumstances – you would ever use those weapons. It’s a game of bluff.
The dialogue above from the sitcom Yes, Prime Minister, was when the argument was about 'upgrading' from Polaris to Trident, as the UK's Continuous At Sea Deterrence (CASD) and when 2020 was a long way off! Now, the UK will have to make a decision whether to replace Trident with the next-generation of nuclear subs, at least one of which is supposedly on patrol at all times. This also means that this form of nuclear strike force produces the greatest likelihood that nuclear war will be avoided, because they could be fired even if the entire government and military command has been knocked out in a pre-emptive surprise attack – what in Whitehall is known as “a bolt from the blue”.
Those who didn’t grow up in the Cold War period and not have the proverbial mushroom cloud hanging over their heads may well be wondering what all the fuss is about with new Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn stating that if you were to become Prime Minister he would never authorise the use of nuclear weapons, even if it was Labour Party policy to renew Trident.
The great political journalist and academic Peter Hennessy said the moment that you really know you are Prime Minister is when you are told by the head of the civil service that you must write personal letters to the commanders of each of the Trident (Vanguard) subs, to be kept in a safe on-board and to be opened only if all means of communication with the UK have been lost and it is presumed that the country has been blasted, irradiated and burnt to kingdom come. You have to instruct the commanders of the subs what they should do in those circumstances. Only one Prime Minister has ever said for sure that they would retaliate and that was Jim Callaghan.
Coming to office in 1976 having uniquely held all three of what are regarded as the greatest offices of state other than Prime Minister – Chancellor of the Exchequer, Home Secretary and Foreign Secretary – and an ex-naval man himself (he almost certainly prevented a war over the Falklands when he was prime minister in 1978 by the strategic deployment of a warship to the area) - Callaghan later stated that had the UK suffered a nuclear attack, he would have instructed one of the then Polaris subs to retaliate. “But I would never have forgiven myself”, he mused.
For Corbyn, who was a unilateralist (or one-sided disarmer) even at the height of the Cold War and whose position on this can hardly therefore be a surprise, the issue of nuclear weapons is one of morality.
He believes it is repugnant and indefensible to even contemplate using such weapons which will be bound not just to kill millions immediately, but many more millions in a lingering, agonising death, not least because the whole of society and the means of food production and clean water would have completely broken down and large parts of the planet poisoned so much that it would be uninhabitable for generations. It is a perfectly understandable and, indeed, in many respects, a laudable view. And at least his position means means that there will be a national debate on the issue: something that has been lacking since the very earliest days, when the post-war Labour government (yes, that same one that introduced the welfare state, nationalisation of key industries, and cradle-to-grave welfare state) gave the go-ahead to develop Britain’s own nuclear weapons. Or as the then Foreign Secretary said: “a nuclear bomb with a bloody great Union Jack on top of it”. From the beginnings, the nuclear weapons’ issue has not just been about – possibly not even mainly about – deterrence, but an attempt to keep the United Kingdom as a world power. As one commentator put it recently: “Our nuclear weapons are being used every day – in diplomacy and in negotiations around the world”.
But we do need the debate because until now all the major decisions about our nukes have been made in private, and in secret, bypassing Parliament except for very occasional, formal votes on expenditure (themselves often disguised within other ‘estimates’), even though many would regard them as the most profound decisions that could ever be taken by a country.
It’s an issue which is nearly split the Labour Party several times. It was the increases in defence expenditure to pay for the UK's bomb and the consequent cuts in the NHS in its very early days that led to the resignations of several Cabinet ministers of the post-war government t, including a future leader, Harold Wilson. In 1960, the party conference voted to abandon nuclear weapons, with the pro-nuclear then leader, Hugh Gaitskell, promising to "fight, fight and fight again to save the party I love.” In fact, when they did come back into power in 1964 under Wilson, they did go ahead with Polaris. Then, in the early 1980s, it was the election as party leader of a founder for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, Michael Foot, which was partly responsible for defection of a number of Labour MPs, including former Cabinet ministers, to form a new, rival party, the SDP.
So, in the past, knowing what a toxic issue this is, Labour governments in particular have been especially nervous about the issue and have been very keen to keep the decision-making process as tight and restricted as possible. And Labour PMs have been very reluctant to discuss the issue in public, especially in the media, even when they've left office.
In 1983 when I was at British forces' radio in West Berlin, Jim Callaghan's office agreed to an interview at the station while he was on a 'goodwill'/meet the troops visit in the then divided city, and my boss generously asked me if I would like to do it. WOULD I? 'His people' had asked a couple of weeks before for an outline of the topics to be covered. He was still an MP but had no formal role in government, it wasn't a news interview, so it was thought that was fair enough. I had told them - thinking about defence issues on a forces' radio station - that I wanted to question him about his secret plan when in office a few years before to upgrade Polaris, which even most of the Cabinet hadn't known about! (This article shows the 'secret minute' has been reclassified as Secret). He stormed into the reception, flanked by his armed bodyguards, and before we had even done the introductions said: "I can tell you one thing young man (well, I was then!) - I'm not going to answer any questions about Chevaline!".
So, as Corbyn would say, let’s have a debate, but as he would also say, please let’s keep it civilised and respectful. Those who are anti-our current nuclear weapons let alone proceeding with a further 'upgrade' need to recognise that decent people, who also want to prevent war of any kind, who also love their children, and who also care about the planet, have different views on this and think the best way of maintaining peace and as the ultimate guarantor of our survival as a free country and think if we abandon nukes it won't lead to a nuclear-free world, but a world where some very nasty regimes have them and we don't. And, no, having nuclear weapons didn't prevent 9/11, or 7/7, or the fight against ISIS. And lots of other threats. But, as I've argued before, that's like blaming your home security alarm for not alerting you when your office or car has been broken into. You need a range of conventional, effective forces as well (and an excellent intelligence service and diplomatic corps). And if you think there are no consequences in giving up nukes, ask some of the Ukrainians how they feel about giving theirs up now that Russian tanks have ploughed into their villages.
Nuclear weapons cannot be dis-invented and the idea that the Russian or Chinese leadership would be shamed by the UK's unilateralism into giving up their nukes is naive and foolish beyond imagining, and fantastically dangerous and irresponsible. Given our world status now, we probably wouldn't become a nuclear state. But we do have them, have had them for a long time, and they form an important part in the collective security in Europe. That's been my settled view for a long time and I doubt very much it's going to change now. But I am prepared to debate and defend that view .
The new Labour leader is going to come under regular and intense scrutiny over this, perhaps more than any other issue,and ultimately it can’t be dodged. It could well split the party – probably not resulting in a new party being formed as such, but produce major blood-letting due to the dislocation between the views of the predominantly new members and supporters in the country and those of the elected MPs. The latter, of course, all won their seats on a manifesto that certainly did not argue for the UK to unilaterally abandon its nuclear weapons and who have a combined vote many, many more times the number who voted for Corbyn as leader.
The new leader has been basking in the warm approval of his party, especially its several hundred thousand new members/supporters, but sooner or later he’s going to have to face a much more hostile audience and series of interrogations, and the omens from his first couple of weeks in office are not good about his ability and his willingness to engage with those who have a very different view. His two major public speeches since elected Labour leader have both attacked the media, even berating them for reporting things which he has in fact said – such as his sponsored Early Day Motion (EDM) about wishing an asteroid would wipe out humankind Well, OK, of course he wasn’t entirely serious, and was using it to make a wider point.but you wouldn’t have known from his attack on Tuesday that he had supported such an EDM (and if it's now to be claimed it was entirely a joke it was a frivolous use of precious parliamentary time). He does tend to bask in his own self-righteous beliefs and gets very tetchy when anyone questions his own morality.
And it isn’t just Corbyn – his deputy, Tom Watson, whose views and attitudes towards press regulation are well known - also has a tendency to get cross with interviewers who box him into a tight spot. Witness this interview he did with Simon Hoban of BBC Radio Merseyside, just a couple of hours after the leader’s speech. It all starts chummy enough, with Watson trying to do the 'ordinary bloke' bit about his beloved footie team. But listen how hostile he becomes when the interview takes a direction which displeases him:
Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaign and the excitement generated since has been like a huge shot of adrenaline into the whole UK political system. It has galvanised young people in particular and even if a lot of the ‘new politics’ do to me seem like a lot of the old ideas reheated, at least these constitute an alternative agenda and discourse and give hope to those who are being – and increasingly will be – hammered by cuts. But the total new membership of the party constitutes barely one and a half per cent of the electorate. There’s an awful lot of people out there who remain unconvinced by either the leader, or the policies – in as much as they have been articulated.
The debates – on nukes and all the other areas that Corbyn has pledged will be discussed – need to involve a much wider section of the population than the still very small party membership. And it can’t all be done on social media. Corbyn’s past statements, support, actions and ‘friendships’ are going to – quite correctly – come under relentless scrutiny now. If he thinks he can just deflect and characterise every criticism or every pointed, unhelpful question as part of a conspiracy by the mainstream media/Tory-supporting newspapers he will never reach out to the bulk of the electorate. Which would be a great pity, because this government certainly needs a credible, authoritative opposition. But that may be a completely MAD hope.