Today’s vote and our decision about Trident are at the heart of what kind of future we want for ourselves and our children. However, it is also about the hard evidence and what we mean by safety in an uncertain and changing world.
The theory that having nuclear weapons makes us safer is entirely unproven, and nor can it be proven. As David Krieger from Waging Peace writes:
“In logic, one cannot prove a negative, that is, that doing something causes something else not to happen. That a nuclear attack has not happened may be a result of any number of other factors, or simply of exceptional good fortune.”
Indeed, many military experts argue that, in fact, nuclear weapons make us less safe, primarily because their very existence increases the likelihood that they will be used and contributes to the amount of nuclear material circulating around the world.
Back in 2014, senior military, political and diplomatic figures, including former Conservative Foreign Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind, former Defence Secretary Des Browne and former Foreign Secretary Lord Owen, came together with the explicit aim of
“shining a light on the risks posed by nuclear weapons.”
“We believe the risks posed by nuclear weapons and the international dynamics that could lead to nuclear weapons being used are underestimated or insufficiently understood by world leaders.”
The Government’s main argument for replacing Trident appears to be that it is the ultimate insurance in an uncertain world, but what they fail to acknowledge is that our possession of nuclear weapons in contravention of the non-proliferation treaty is exacerbating that uncertainty—it is leading to the very scenario that it is designed to avoid.
Nor have the advocates of nuclear weapons ever explained why, if Trident is so vital to protecting us, that is not also the case for every other country in the world. How can we possibly try to deny other countries the right to acquire nuclear weapons if we are upgrading our own nuclear weapons? Do proponents of Trident renewal genuinely believe that a world where all countries have nuclear weapons would be safer than the one we live in today?
Such immunity to reason means that there is a blinkered approach to the heightened risk of accidents or threats to UK nuclear weapons, whether that is in Scotland, at the Faslane and Coulport bases, or in England, at AWE Aldermaston and Burghfield, or whether it is in relation to the nuclear warhead convoys taken out on our public roads, such as the M4 and the M25—indeed, some were seen on the M74 just a few weeks ago—and which go through small villages, sometimes up to a dozen times a year.
There is also little recognition of the fact that nuclear weapons systems are themselves fallible. According to a quite shocking report by Chatham House, there have been 13 incidents since 1962 in which nuclear weapons have nearly been launched. One of the most dramatic, in 1983, was when Stanislav Petrov—the duty officer in a Soviet nuclear war early-warning centre—found his system warning of the launch of five US missiles. After a few moments of agonising, he judged it—correctly—to be a false alarm. However, if he had reached a different conclusion and passed the information up the control chain, it could have triggered the firing of nuclear missiles by Russia.
People say that we cannot uninvent things that have been invented, but biological weapons were banned in 1972, chemical weapons in 1993, landmines in 1997 and cluster munitions in 2008. If the political will is there, it can be done.