SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 196 March 2016

Blair’s nuclear proliferation

We reprint below a shortened version of an article by LYNN WALSH on the decision of Tony Blair’s Labour government to renew Trident – first published in Socialism Today No.107, March 2007. There have of course been many developments since then. But the same fundamental arguments against Trident are just as valid today.

Tony Blair is determined to commit Britain to a new Trident missile system before he leaves office later this year, 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.

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.

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. 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 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 Gordon 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 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.

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 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.


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 a 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 in Korea and Vietnam) which claimed the lives of between 20 and 30 million people during the 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, the 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: The Suez Fiasco, Socialism Today No.104, October 2006)

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 [Osama] bin Laden or Al Qaeda 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.

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, it says, "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) "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 George W 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.

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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