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Trident through the looking glass darkly

When confronted with the illogicality of keeping nuclear weapons, the Establishment simply denies reality, says DAVID LOWRY

I ATTENDED a surreal press conference in Parliament on July 1 for the launch of the Trident Commission report. 

Presenting it was a panel of eminences grises including ex-Tory defence and foreign secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind in the chair, Labour’s last defence secretary Lord Browne of Ladyton, Lib Dem former leader and  intelligence and security committee member Sir Ming Campbell, Professor Alyson Bailes and ex-British ambassador to the UN Sir Jeremy Greenstock. It was the Establishment in aspic. 

I pointed out that despite the commissioners claiming they were in favour of multilateral nuclear disarmament, the only nuclear disarmament they could cite were unilateral withdrawal of ancient nuclear weapons systems — atomic artillery and free-fall bombs — and some warheads deemed no longer necessary by the Ministry of Defence. 

This showed that the CND’s unilateralist approach, so long decried by those who defend nuclear weapons to death, was right. 

I said they were muddled in stating — correctly — that Britain had a responsibility under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to negotiate complete nuclear disarmament but then claiming that British retention of nuclear WMD was crucial as an insurance policy in case of a changed strategic security situation.

Moreover in a contorted piece of logic, the report insists: “Though possession is not legally required for nuclear weapon status under the NPT (defined in historical terms), it is doubtful that the UK would retain continuing influence on the thinking or process of nuclear negotiations if it ceased all its nuclear weapon activities.”

So it seems we have to keep nuclear weapons to get rid of them. It reminded me of the perverse logic of the US military in Vietnam:  “We  burned the village to the ground to save it from the Vietcong.”

Sir Malcolm denied my point that since the NPT came into force in 1970 no British nuclear weapons had been negotiated away by multilateral disarmament talks, citing Cruise and Pershing 2. 

He must have forgotten these were US weapons, negotiated away by the US and Soviet Union in intermediate-range bilateral talks. To his credit, Lord Browne did concede that Britain’s removal of nuclear WMD  capacity had been unilateral steps. 

In one bizarre intervention, Sir Ming tried to put down an eminently sensible point made by a York University academic about compliance with NPT obligations, by saying that (we important) politicians have a different agenda from (you mere) academics, suggesting by example: “Who would want to be the prime minister in 2040 who had withdrawn all our nuclear weapons to find himself open to blackmail by an emergent nuclear state?” 

He could have asked who, as PM, would want to stand up in the House of Commons (assuming it survived a retaliatory strike) to explain why he had immolated a million innocent citizens in a foreign country by authorising the launch of a Trident nuclear missile but Ming failed to do that.

As our current disarmament ambassador in Geneva, Dr Matthew Rowland, told me a few weeks ago at a Foreign and Commonwealth Office round table, the reason none of Britain’s nuclear weapons has been removed in a multilateral disarmament process is that we have never put any of our nuclear arsenal into such talks. 

The most stunning quote from the press conference was by Professor Bailes — a former head of the Foreign Office security policy department no less — who responded to my reminding the commissioners of this fact by saying:  “We are using words in a different way.” 

Indeed we are!

As Humpty Dumpty told Alice and the Mad Hatter in scornful tone in Alice Through the Looking Glass: “When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”


Dr David Lowry is former director of the European Proliferation Information Centre (EPIC)       


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