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UK: Are nuclear weapons a redundant luxury?

by / 1 Comment / 02/10/2014

Trident, as many people know is the UK’s £2 billion a year nuclear deterrent designed to give the UK a powerful card to play when faced with certain situations. David Cameron in 2013 stated, ‘it would be foolish to scrap Britain’s fleet of nuclear submarines while countries like Iran and North Korea seek to develop their own atomic weapons.’ Money spent on Trident could scrap student tuition fees for the next 30 years – saving students from a debt of up to £27,000 each, or pay for 150,000 new nurses and teachers every year for over 30 years.

The side arguing that it is time for the UK to give up on its nuclear deterrent now has more weight behind it than ever before. The US in 2013 argued that if the UK wanted to continue to be a ‘real military partner’ then it needed to be a well-equipped and viable conventional military force, capable of twenty-first century interventions and keeping up the European end of NATO military capacity. Thus there is an added need for the UK to pronounce its nuclear arsenal as void, since the US would value a Britain that could deploy troops, navy and aircraft to a battlefield than have a nuclear deterrent. Wars in the latter half of the twentieth and the beginning of the twenty-first century also back up this assumption. Nuclear weapons didn’t stop the war in the Suez Canal, Korea, the Falklands, nor did they stop the war in Afghanistan and Iraq.

By comparison, building a state-of-the-art hospital costs around £545 million. Providing free school dinners for children from families in receipt of Universal Credit would cost around £500 million per year.  The money spent on Trident could quadruple Britain’s annual investment in renewable energy, or create 180,000 new jobs in housing construction.

Some argue that the reason for it never having to be used is proof that as a deterrent it works. Julian Lewis who is a Conservative MP believes that Trident is needed, and champions the case for the replacement of Trident in 2020. He has said: ‘It is vital to retain a minimum strategic deterrent as the ultimate insurance policy against aggression by any future opponent armed with mass-destruction weapons.’ It has also been argued by the Nuclear Defence Industry that scrapping Trident without renewing could cost the jobs of 15,000 people.

A YouGov poll in April 2013 found that 34 per cent of people believe that the UK should find a cheaper system for keeping nuclear weapons whilst 20 per cent of people believed that the UK should give up nuclear weapons altogether. Another interesting statistic is that 46 per cent of people asked, believed that the UK would be seen as a less important country in the world if it were to give up its nuclear weapons, compared to 38 per cent believing that this would not be the case.

Therefore could the actual reason for keeping Trident be more political than military? Does the international influence and status that nuclear weapons bring outweigh the cost?

The replacement for Trident in 2020 could cost around £100 billion over its lifespan (30-40 years), which to many is utterly preposterous. A government, which is hell-bent on cuts and reducing the country’s deficit is willing to spend vast amounts of money on a deterrent which in today’s world seems superfluous. This was summed up by Madeline Held, Nuclear Education Trust Chair: ‘It is quite frankly unbelievable that at a time of austerity, when every item of public expenditure has to be justified to the Nth degree, that the biggest proposed UK investment programme has received so little public scrutiny.’

Scrapping Trident and diverting the extra money to domestic projects such as spending on the NHS, or building new homes is important. But there are other reasons too; events in the first half of 2014 show why it may no longer be necessary to have a nuclear deterrent. Diplomatic relations with Iran have taken a turn for the better after Hassan Rouhani won the election. The west has begun to let Iran back into the fold of world politics. The 5+1 groups (UK, US, China, Russia, France and Germany) agreeing to lift some sanctions has meant that exports from Iran to the EU have increased. According to the Islamic Republic’s Customs Service among those countries now importing more Iranian products are France, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, Germany and the United Kingdom.

The British embassy in Iran has also reopened and relations between the UK and Iran have been improving dramatically. William Hague stated last month that the circumstances were right to restore the diplomatic mission after a significant thawing in relations in recent months. Britain has also looked to involve Iran in helping the Iraqi Government combat ISIS. Britain has actively sought to restart the reconciliation process with an Iran that looks like it could be a lot more pragmatic and no longer appears as an enemy.

Can the UK really say without blushing that it is so afraid of North Korea that it wants to replace Trident with a new system with a possible £100 billion price tag? Or does Britain continue to sustain its misnamed nuclear ‘deterrent’, (which is not even independent because it can only be fired with US consent) to guarantee its continuing place as one of the permanent five members on the UN Security Council. If so, it doesn’t benefit the lives of everyday people who could be benefiting from the money saved from the dismantling of Trident.

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