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Socialism Today 107 - March 2007

Blair’s nuclear proliferation

Blair and Brown are rushing their plan through parliament to update Britain’s nuclear weapons. At an initial cost of £20 billion, the 160 warheads will have the combined destructive force of 1,280 Hiroshimas. Alternatively, that money could pay for hundreds of thousands of nurses and teachers, and provide other essential social services. LYNN WALSH reports.

TONY BLAIR IS determined to commit Britain to a new Trident missile system before he leaves office later this year. Gordon Brown supports this programme, which is likely to cost £76 billion over its lifetime.

There is the charade of a public debate, while in reality the white paper, The Future of the UK’s Nuclear Deterrent, was rubber-stamped by the cabinet and will no doubt, with Tory support, be rubber-stamped by parliament in March.

Blair is proposing a new arsenal of about 160 nuclear warheads, to be launched from US Trident missiles based on four British-made submarines. Currently, each Trident warhead has around eight times the explosive power of the Hiroshima bomb, which killed over 80,000 people.

This grotesque arsenal, claims Blair, is required as an "ultimate insurance policy" in an "uncertain and dangerous" world. But the case made in the white paper and by Blair is completely threadbare. Blair himself describes the risk of Britain being threatened by an existing nuclear power (presumably either Russia or China) or by an emerging regional power (such as North Korea or Iran) as "not non-existent". There is no recognition that any such nuclear threat to Britain could only arise as part of an international crisis – in which Britain’s relatively small nuclear arsenal would be a completely marginal factor. Moreover, the risk to Britain of rogue states sponsoring nuclear terrorism is described by Blair as "not wholly fanciful". Yet, on the basis of these alleged risks, British taxpayers will be billed for the most expensive nuclear insurance policy ever.

The government estimates that the new Trident system will cost between £15 billion and £20 billion (mainly occurring between 2012-27). Other experts calculate that the system will cost at least £25 billion. Adding up the total commissioning and running costs over the lifetime of the new system, the total bill will be in the region of £76 billion.

Clearly, any public money spent on Trident will not be spent on the improvement of public services, such as health provision, education, and the basic state pension. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) has calculated that £25 billion would pay for: 120,000 nurses every year for the next ten years, scrapping student top-up fees for the next decade, 60,000 teachers every year for the next 20 years, 100,000 extra fire-fighters every year for a decade, protecting 360 million hectares of rainforest, 100,000 extra midwives every year for ten years. The £76 billion overall commissioning and running costs would pay for a lot more social provision.

Trident should be scrapped now. The so-called ‘independent nuclear deterrent’ has nothing to do with the security and wellbeing of people in Britain. Possession of a nuclear arsenal is all about the power and prestige of the ruling class and its political elite.

A fait accompli

BLAIR CLAIMS HE welcomes a debate on the renewal of Britain’s ‘nuclear deterrent’. Superficially, it is true, Blair’s approach has been more open than past Labour or Tory prime ministers. In 1947, the Labour prime minister, Clement Attlee, set up a special cabinet subcommittee which decided to build a British nuclear bomb. In the 1970s, Labour premier, James Callaghan, referred the issue of upgrading British nuclear warheads to an informal ministerial group of four, which secretly decided to adopt the so-called Chevaline programme, a decision that only became public under the subsequent Thatcher government. Margaret Thatcher herself appointed a five-person Trident group to discuss nuclear weapons’ policy. The decision to launch the Trident system only came out a year or so later because of a report in the New York Times. In contrast, Blair, fully supported by Brown, has come out in the open about his intention to commission a new generation of Trident submarines and missiles.

In the past, neither Labour nor Tory leaders were prepared to leave key issues of defence policy, of vital interest for the ruling class, to be subject to challenge, let alone veto, by parliament. Blair has been open because he is confident of rushing it through parliament with the minimum of scrutiny.

In fact, on the replacement of the Trident system, Blair has presented his cabinet and parliament with a fait accompli. Public debate will follow a decision to commit the government to a massively expensive Trident replacement programme. The public discussion is merely window-dressing.

Even the pro-Tory Daily Telegraph, which supports replacement of Trident, criticised Blair’s "unseemly haste": "A cabinet discussion of less than an hour ten days ago was rubber-stamped in Downing Street yesterday morning. A Commons vote will follow early in the new year. Why the rush?" (5 December 2006) The cabinet was allowed to discuss the issue only after a defence white paper arguing for a single option of a new generation of Trident had already been published.

Blair has been determined to prevent any alternative options, such as a much cheaper option of upgrading the current Trident submarines and missiles. This option is favoured by some of the military tops, who fear that expenditure on a new Trident system will drain cash from conventional forces, currently overstretched by Blair’s interventionist policy in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere.

The Trident system consists of US-made missiles armed with British-made nuclear warheads, and based on four British-made submarines. The warheads are made and maintained at the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment (AWRE) at Aldermaston in Berkshire. A massive new development has already been started at this site, clearly in preparation for a new generation of nuclear weapons. The AWRE project is said to be on the scale of the new Terminal Five at Heathrow, costing £4.2 billion, and described as "one of the biggest construction projects ever undertaken in Britain".

The commencement of this massive AWRE project indicates that Blair and Brown already assume that the Trident renewal will be going ahead. Blair is confident of a majority in parliament, as the Tories will be supporting New Labour’s nuclear policy. Only about 50 Labour MPs are expected to vote against a new Trident system – an indication of just how far to the right the Labour Party has swung.

Remember the days when Labour leaders supported CND? In 1983, Blair said: "We don’t need dangerous and costly Trident and cruise missiles". In 1984, Brown described nuclear weapons as "Unacceptable, expensive, economically wasteful and militarily unsound".


WHAT IS BLAIR’S rationale for the modernisation of Trident? During the ‘cold war’ from the end of the second world war until the collapse of the Soviet Union after 1989, the argument for nuclear weapons put forward by capitalist leaders was relatively clear. Two rival blocs competed for economic, strategic and political influence: the West, dominated by US imperialism, and the Eastern bloc, dominated by the Soviet Union, a bureaucratic dictatorship ruling over a centrally planned economy. There was a race to stockpile ever more sophisticated and destructive nuclear weaponry, led by the US, followed by the Soviet bureaucracy. ‘Mutually Assured Destruction’, the capacity for massive retaliation to any ‘first strike’, ruled out nuclear war as a rational choice. The certainty of retaliation made a decision to launch a nuclear strike the equivalent of suicide for the regime concerned. Even so, it is now clear that the world came dangerously close to nuclear destruction on several occasions, notably during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962.

Although, barring an horrendous accident, nuclear weapons ruled out world war between the superpowers, the nuclear arsenals of the US, Britain, France, Russia, China and Israel did not prevent a whole series of ‘small’ wars (including the Korean and Vietnam wars) which claimed the lives of between 20 and 30 million people during the so-called cold war. Nevertheless, political leaders in the West, including Britain, were able to point to the threat of ‘totalitarian communism’ – that is, the Stalinist systems of the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and China – as a justification for maintaining nuclear arsenals as a ‘deterrent’ against attack.

Even during the cold war period, however, Britain’s so-called ‘independent British deterrent’ was really an expensive appendage to the US’s mighty arsenal. British nuclear weaponry was puny compared to that of the US and the Soviet Union. British weapons were effectively leased from the US, and their operation depended on US technical support. Moreover, it was inconceivable that Britain would act independently of the US on vital strategic issues. The Eden government’s ill-fated Suez adventure in 1956 was the last time British imperialism attempted to go it alone without US approval (see Socialism Today No.104 article, The Suez Fiasco).

From the post-war Attlee government onwards, successive British governments maintained nuclear arsenals, not primarily for defence, but to retain membership of the nuclear club, to perpetuate the illusion of Britain as a ‘great power’.

In the post-cold war world, it is much more difficult for capitalist leaders to make a plausible case for nuclear weapons. The white paper produced in December argues that "we cannot rule out the risk either that a major direct nuclear threat to the UK’s vital interests will re-emerge [from Russia? or China?] or that new states will emerge that possess a more limited nuclear capability, but one that could pose a grave threat to our vital interests". The second threat presumably refers to regional ‘rogue states’, such as North Korea and Iran, that possess or are in the process of developing nuclear weapons.

A third threat, it is claimed, "is a risk that some countries might in future seek to sponsor nuclear terrorism from their soil. We must not allow such states to threaten our national security…"

These arguments have been answered by Roy Hattersley, formerly a right-wing member of the ‘Old Labour’ leadership and an inveterate ‘cold warrior’ (pro-American, anti-Soviet) who supported Britain’s nuclear weapons. Now, he says, nuclear weapons "are irrelevant to Britain’s defence". Writing in The Guardian (4 December 2006), he argues: "Supposing that we are under threat from ‘rogue states’ as well as ‘international terrorists’, does anyone really imagine that either of these enemies will be deterred in the way that the Soviet Union once was? If bin Laden or al Qa’ida are the enemy, on whom are we to threaten to unleash the holocaust? If it is Iran and North Korea that concerns us, is it remotely possible that these countries will react to the balance of terror as the Soviet Union did in the 1950s and 1960s? Our complaint against them is that they do not behave as rational states behave. Why should they respond rationally to a nuclear threat?

"The whole idea is clearly a fantasy. So why does the government propose to squander billions of pounds that could be useful to fulfil the social purposes that ought to be Labour’s overwhelming priority?"

Referring to ‘rogue governments’ potentially ‘aiding’ terrorists, Blair himself had to admit "it’s improbable but no one can say it’s impossible". (Parliamentary debate, 4 December 2006)

Blair’s case lacks all credibility. Britain’s nuclear arsenal, for instance, did not prevent the occupation of the Falklands/Malvinas in 1982 by Argentina’s Galtieri regime. Nuclear weapons did not protect the exiled Litvinenko being murdered last year by means of highly toxic radioactive polonium – by assassins apparently sponsored by either a rogue state or a criminal organisation.

A grotesque arsenal of over 10,000 nuclear weapons has not saved US imperialism from defeat in Iraq at the hands of an insurgency using small arms and improvised explosive devices. Nor has the nuclear-armed US been able to prevent the development of nuclear weapons by states like Pakistan or, more recently, North Korea (which now has at least a crude nuclear weapon of some kind).

Weapons of prestige

CALLING FOR THE ‘modernisation’ of Trident, New Labour’s Blair is following in the footsteps of previous Old Labour premiers – Attlee, Wilson and Callaghan – renewing an expensive commitment to Britain’s ‘independent nuclear deterrent’. The real motive, nowhere stated in the white paper or Blair’s speeches, is prestige. Prestige is the aura of power, which leaders strive to blow up beyond their real economic and strategic base. ‘Prestige’ comes from the same Latin root as ‘prestidigitation’, the old-fashioned word for conjuring and juggling.

Blair is determined that British imperialism, now a second- or third-rate power, should continue to ‘punch above its weight’, remaining part of the nuclear, great-power club. This is spelt out openly by the pro-Tory Daily Telegraph, which favours renewal of Trident. Nuclear weapons, comments an editorial (5 December 2006), "serve an additional purpose to deterrence. They also help convert economic power into political". They ignore the fact, of course, that massive expenditure on nuclear weapons undermines the economic wellbeing of the majority of people in Britain.

On the other side, the Financial Times, perhaps the most authoritative mouthpiece of big business in Britain, takes a sceptical position about the desirability of a new Trident system.

"What exactly… is it for?" asks an editorial (Unanswered Questions, 5 December 2006). "Much is made of the bewildering uncertainty of the post-cold war world. Yet it is hard to claim it is more dangerous than the mutual assured destruction the world faced then. What is Britain’s deterrent meant to deter?" Future, unpredictable, threats from Russia or China, they say, "would surely only arise as part of a global crisis in which the UK would be playing a secondary role".

"Put simply: do we need Trident as ‘the ultimate insurance’ as Mr Blair says? Or are we clinging to the ultimate vestige of the great power delusions to which this prime minister seems especially prone? If we did not already have Trident, would we set about acquiring it from scratch?"

The Financial Times columnist, Philip Stephens, is even more scathing. "The government cannot argue that a strategic nuclear capability is vital to Britain’s future security. Had it not already possessed the bomb it is inconceivable that any government would now seriously contemplate its acquisition". (The High Price of Nuclear Prestige, 4 December 2006) Countering the government’s arguments in favour of Trident, Stephens comments: "The government’s deterrence theory looks threadbare by the time it reaches rogue states arming nuclear terrorists. The best Mr Blair could say is that this scenario is ‘not utterly fanciful’."

Are the risks sufficiently plausible to justify the huge cost of a new Trident system? Stephens implies they are not. "The costs are political as well as financial… there comes a point when modernisation of their arsenals robs the existing nuclear powers of all moral authority".

Delusions of grandeur

WITH GRANDIOSE STRATEGIC pretensions, Blair has tried to imitate the military policies of Bush. Like Bush, Blair is determined to update Britain’s nuclear arsenal, including the development of so-called tactical nuclear weapons. In fact, plans for the new Trident include the arming of some missiles with tactical warheads that (according to Blair’s crazy strategic thinking) could be used in a war-fighting situation. Like Bush, Blair favours a policy of aggressive intervention into trouble spots around the world. Despite recent events and a flood of reports from military and strategic experts, Blair still refuses to admit that the threat of terrorist attack in the West has been enormously increased by US-British intervention in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, and elsewhere.

It is still part of Blair’s defence policy (proposed in New Labour’s 1998 Strategic Defence Review) to develop an enhanced capacity for global intervention. Plans are still current to build two new large aircraft carriers, which would be the core of military taskforces on the US model. The phenomenal costs of building two new carriers, purchasing new fighter aircraft (mostly from the US), and building supporting warships would, if this programme goes ahead, be even greater than the projected costs of the Trident system.

These militaristic plans are based on delusions of grandeur. Meanwhile, Britain’s military commanders are more and more complaining about their troops’ lack of basic equipment (armoured Land Rovers, body armour) and substandard housing for troops and their families.

Blair has boasted that the current 200 Trident warheads will be reduced to about 160 in the new system – as if this will make some contribution to world nuclear disarmament. In fact, moves by Britain, the US and other powers to modernise their nuclear arsenals will have the opposite effect, regardless of the precise number of warheads.

Increased rivalry and tension between the major and regional powers since the end of the cold war have led to an acceleration of proliferation. The Non-Proliferation Treaty is, in reality, a dead letter.

Blair, along with Bush and other Western leaders, have denounced North Korea for developing at least a primitive nuclear bomb and Iran for beginning a nuclear programme. But their position is completely hypocritical. The US, for instance, has encouraged India to develop nuclear weapons (as a counterweight to China) and recently turned a blind eye to Pakistan’s nuclear programme. Western leaders have long upheld the conspiracy of silence about the Israeli state’s nuclear arsenal, which was first developed in the early 1960s. Without any new entrants to the nuclear club, there are already around 27,600 nuclear warheads globally – more than enough to destroy the planet and pollute surrounding space.

Through their militaristic policies, the major powers have provoked further proliferation of nuclear weapons, and they are powerless to stop it. The superpowers may regard nuclear weapons as an absolute last resort. But can it be totally ruled out that unstable regimes like North Korea or Pakistan, given internal crisis and regional conflicts, would not resort to a nuclear strike against their enemies?

The world is becoming a more dangerous place. The failure of the United Nations and numerous international arms controls treaties to stop the spread of nuclear weapons shows nuclear disarmament to be a utopian dream under capitalism. The competitive drive of national capitalist states for their own spheres of influence, for markets and resources, makes the accumulation of arms and wars inevitable.

For as long as they exist, nuclear weapons will pose a dire threat to humankind. But the elimination of nuclear weapons requires a world-wide change in the social system: democratic economic planning instead of the anarchy of the market. Socialist democracy instead of the predatory rule of capitalists and landlords. Only the democratic control of society by the working class can provide the basis for real international cooperation and global planning.

Far from being the ‘ultimate insurance policy’, a new generation of Trident will help make the world a much more volatile and dangerous place. The alarming proliferation of nuclear weapons makes socialist change even more urgent.


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