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Trident is the symbol of a kind of power which is long out of date

I saw a Trident submarine surface once, a huge, slow black shape on a summer’s day in the Firth of Clyde. It was out of place amidst the sailing yachts and ferry boats, a hulking presence that seemed irrelevant compared...


I saw a Trident submarine surface once, a huge, slow black shape on a summer’s day in the Firth of Clyde. It was out of place amidst the sailing yachts and ferry boats, a hulking presence that seemed irrelevant compared to the productive and pleasurable activity which surrounded it.

The existence of that submarine and its three sisters, patrolling in unknown deep locations to offer us supposed nuclear protection, is not a moral outrage. I’m not convinced they make us less safe, as some critics argue.

But they’re a big waste of money. Trident is the cause of a misleading set of arguments about our national defence and economy. Its abolition might allow us to have a sensible argument about both.

Britain possesses nuclear weapons because, in the 1950s, we thought we were still a superpower. In the world before the Suez Crisis and collapse of British industry, politicians thought we needed whatever weapons systems superpowers had. Even then, the logic of nuclear weapons was far more about image and rhetoric and reality.

Now, both pro- and anti-campaigners like to imagine nuclear war is incalculably worse than ordinary conflict, but conventional bombing quickly causes the same devastation. The fire-bombing of Tokyo was worse than the detonation at Hiroshima; Nagasaki no worse than a couple of night’s blitzing of Hamburg.

It is hard to see what nuclear weapons protect us against which we’re not protected from anyway. In a world when, MI5 tells us, we face near-daily terrorist threats, the existence of a nuclear umbrella doesn’t seem very relevant; Trident isn’t much use against plutonium carried in a suitcase.

Alongside stateless terror threats, countries like Russia and China are touted as possible sources of aggression. But where commerce is so interconnected, there are other means of attack. The 1950s idea of nuclear deterrent was based on an antagonism between global rivals that had no means of influencing each other but threatening annihilation. The threats are very different when Russian billionaires have money stashed in London banks and China’s economy relies on exports to the USA. As Syria and Iran prove, the way the world is connected doesn’t lead either side to get its own way alone. But it makes nuclear weapons irrelevant.

I’m puzzled by the sceptical attitude the defenders of Britain’s nuclear weapons have towards our place in global alliances. We are not a nation whose defence can be imagined alone. Axing Trident needn’t happen alongside leaving NATO for example; and an attack on one part of the alliance is an attack on all. The money spent on Trident could be used to more effectively strengthen NATO’s defences.

Nothing can safely be predicted, but after Iraq and Afghanistan, big wars are unlikely. Our military will be called on to make large numbers of small interventions, air strikes here, humanitarian rescue missions there. Those kinds of acts need transport; particularly, perhaps, small fast ships, the kind of vessels that could easily switch from military to civilian use.

So here’s my proposal: phase out Trident. Use the money we were going to spend on a replacement to invest in Britain’s shipbuilding capacity, particularly to augment our (now tiny) navy. In the process, develop a workforce with skills that make things that are relevant to the twenty-first century, ships to patrol and transport being one. The trade unions’ argument for replacing Trident is that it will employ people. But, compared to shipbuilding, there is only a limited market for making nuclear weapons.

We need to reorient defence procurement to suit the way Britain has changed. The cold war is over. We are now a far less militaristic society than we were. The British public likes its armed forces, but isn’t happy spending as much as it once did on defence. In a sense, the left has won the argument. Defence spending has shrunk, and the taxes once used to pay for guns and soldiers are now spend on the NHS. Defence spending was 7 per cent of GDP in the 1960s; health spending was 4 per cent. Defence is now 2 per cent and the NHS 7.3 per cent. The result is that we’ve become more healthy, but the defence budget, particularly in times of war, has been stretched and we need to make difficult choices about how it is spent.

The argument in favour of a British bomb is about a form of prestige which last made sense in the 1950s, and a form of power which died when the cold war ended. Compared to the other costs which face the British taxpayer (including normal defence spending) it’s an argument the 2010s can’t afford to make. Trident is nothing more than a symbol, but it is the symbol of a kind of power which is long out of date. Those hulks looming in the Firth of Clyde do not need to be replaced.


Jon Wilson

Jon Wilson teaches history at King's College London where he’s also academic lead for Widening Participation. He was a Labour councillor in Waltham Forest, and is active in Greenwich and Woolwich.


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