At the recent We need to talk about nukes debate in London, organised by WMD Awareness and BASIC, arguments were put forward about how the UK would “lose its identity as a world power, [and its] history as an imperial power” if it disinvested in its nuclear weapons. This argument seems to rear its ugly head again and again in these debates, so I decided to look at it in a little more detail.
In the Cold War era it could be argued that looking weak vis a vis Russia was one of the biggest security risks. The threat from the eastern bloc was very real and the nuclear standoff that ensued is one of the tensest political periods in recent European history.
But we no longer live in a world where there are two sides vying for power, and security threats are no longer traditional state actors as in the past. In fact it is non-state actors – a group or individual with significant political influence who is not allied with a particular country or state – who now pose the biggest threat to our security. The difficulty with this, of course, is that the threat could very well come from within your country’s own borders, so the Cold War strategy of accumulating missiles and targeting them at a separate enemy is no longer a viable option.
Two former defence ministers, Lord Stirrup and Lords Richards, agree. Recently at the House of Commons Defence Committee hearing on National Security (June 2014) both former ministers recounted this to the Guardian online defence and security section. They spokeabout some of the greatest security threats faced by the UK and both argued that Russia is no longer a threat, even with the recent issues in Crimea. Lord Richards concluded that the biggest threat now comes from militant jihadism and non-state actors. Furthermore, the 2010 National Security Strategy rated cyber attacks as a ‘Tier 1’ (highest level) security threat.
The reality is that the UK cannot rely on weapons that were designed for a different world and political context to fight these modern day security threats. Despite the need for us to face up to these changes, Britain is still very much an influential country, we are still part of NATO and would be with or without our nuclear weapons, and we are showing leadership in the area of navy defence too. This is why I believe it is important for the UK to use its influence by leading the way in disarmament efforts and disinvesting in our nuclear weapons system, Trident.
Our funding of Trident – we spend in the region of £350,000 an hour on nuclear weapons in the UK – could be taking away from crucial funding needed to defend Britain from the more prevalent issues of today, such as climate change or cyber terrorism. Of course we could argue that some of the £350,000 an hour spent on nuclear weapons in the UK could be spent on education or healthcare. But there is a very real argument that this money could be better used in different security areas in the UK defence budget.
Considering that the government itself has highlighted extremism and cyber attacks as two of the biggest security threats facing the UK today, it could be more prudent for them to disinvest in Trident and spend more of the national security budget on combating these issues.
It Is clear that leadership in this era requires a different response to that of the Cold War period. The 2016 Main Gate decision on whether to renew Trident is a chance for the UK to take leadership and be one of the first countries to live up to their international promises by making Trident a thing of the past.
This post is part of Talking Trident – a national conversation giving young adults a voice in the debate on nuclear weapons.