Big issues in brief
Why Corbyn’s got it right on nuclear weapons
He hasn’t said he wouldn’t use it, but instead puts forward better solutions than bilateral annihilation
What are your views on nuclear weapons? In January 2016, an ORB International poll for The Independent found that only a slight majority of 51% of the British public support full renewal of Trident, while 49% either back non-nuclear submarines or reject any renewal. The 13 polls conducted between then and 2005 show on average that only 39% of people back Trident renewal, compared to 44% who oppose it. Public support for Trident renewal is therefore not as clear-cut as is portrayed by the mainstream media.
“Many find it admirable that Corbyn continues to stick to his principles in calling for diplomatic and peaceful alternatives to war”
During last night’s Question Time debate, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was extensively grilled on the issue of nuclear weapons and whether he would be willing to use Trident. Corbyn is the former vice-chair of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and has been a member since 1966, when he was still at school. It’s no secret that he opposes nuclear weapons and many find it admirable that he continues to stick to his principles in calling for diplomatic and peaceful alternatives to war.
However, the Labour Party’s policy is that the renewal of the Trident nuclear weapons system will go ahead. This stance has been decided via democratic means within the party and is respected by its leader.
Corbyn has been very clear that he would never be the first to use a nuclear weapon. This is widely accepted as being the best policy — it makes no sense to escalate tensions by committing genocide. However, the question he faces over and over again relates to whether he would use it in retaliation, after an enemy has already fired a nuclear weapon at the UK. The answer Corbyn gives is that he would ensure that he pursues all diplomatic means possible before considering war as an eventuality. When continually pressed on whether he would use it after diplomatic discussions have broken down and after a nuclear missile has been launched at the UK, he still avoids saying outright that he would be willing to use nuclear weapons, but he does not rule it out. This is a wise stance to take. He refuses to be forced into making an aggressive statement that he does not believe in and that could stoke diplomatic tensions. This is the sign of a resilient and principled leader.
Those of us whom are opposed to nuclear weapons are told that they are a necessary “deterrent” against other nuclear powers. However, the question regarding the use of nuclear weapons in retaliation keeps arising from the same people who claim that a nuclear arsenal is a justifiable deterrent. Inherently, either that question is void, or the continued parroting of the questions proves that nuclear weapons are not an effective deterrent.
There are nine countries with their own nuclear weapons — Russia, USA, France, China, UK, Pakistan, India, Israel and North Korea — and only five of these have them legally. Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey also host US nuclear weapons via NATO’s “nuclear sharing” programme.
Trident renewal directly breaches the terms of the 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, to which the UK is a signatory. Every country in the world except India, Pakistan, South Sudan and North Korea is party to the treaty, which commits each signatory not only to cease developing further nuclear weapons, but also to eventually achieve full disarmament.
The US and Russia (as of 2015) in combination possess over 90% of all nuclear weapons in existence. The UK is not under threat of nuclear war from any country. The exaggerated fear over North Korea’s nuclear capability affects only South Korea, Japan, the US and other nearby Asia-Pacific neighbours. Although Russia’s nuclear capability and aggressive foreign policy is of concern for the whole world, the historical tensions resulting from the Cold War — principally the Cuban missile crisis — lie between the US and Russia. The UK’s ~215 nuclear warheads would have little impact on Russia — which has ~7,500 — if nuclear war were to break out. The US’s ~7,200 weapons would be needed to counter such an attack. Irrespective of illegality of breaching the non-proliferation treaty, massive proliferation of British nuclear weapons could only be seen by Russia as an act of aggression. This in turn would not be conducive to maintaining peace and avoiding nuclear war.
“Nuclear war is never justifiable.”
Take it from someone who has visited the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and the hypocentre of where the bomb detonated: nuclear war is never justifiable. The retaliation on the Japanese for their attack on Pearl Habour — which killed fewer than 2,500 people and injured around 1,200 more — involved the use of two nuclear weapons on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, killing an estimated 200,000+ civilians and 20,000 soldiers. It also severely burned and maimed scores of thousands more and left people with radiation sickness that caused slow and painful death or cancer. This disproportionate response has no grounding or legality in morality, nor in conventions on what constitutes “fair” warfare.
Each Trident weapon has a power of 120 megaton and the UK’s four submarines could each carry 40 warheads, meaning the nuclear arsenal of the UK alone would have a combined power of over 19,200 megatons — around 1,280 times that of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The most powerful man-made explosion in history was the detonation of the 50 megaton Tsar bomb test by the Soviet Union in 1961. Unleashing even one Trident bomb is not only unacceptable, it is illegal under international law to indiscriminately mass murder hundreds of thousands — or millions — of innocent civilians.
What’s more, Trident is an obsolete and poor value technology. In 2015, Royal Navy submariner William McNeilly blew the whistle on Trident insecurities by making 30 allegations regarding safety failures on the nuclear deterrent. These included the muting of missile safety alarms, failure to conduct security checks and the cover-up of a collision with a French nuclear submarine. The military establishment itself has challenged the credibility of Trident. In a 2015 report by the Nuclear Information Service and the Nuclear Education Trust entitled “British military attitudes to nuclear weapons and disarmament”, a significant number of military interviewees expressed opposition or lack of support for Trident renewal. Major General Patrick Cordingley, who led British forces in the first Gulf War, said “Strategic nuclear weapons have no military use. It would seem the government wishes to replace Trident simply to remain a nuclear power alongside the other four permanent members of the UN Security Council. This is misguided and flies in the face of public opinion; we have more to offer than nuclear bombs.” Former Defence Secretaries Michael Portillo (Conservative) and Des Browne (Labour) are also opposed to Trident renewal, whilst Paul Ingram, executive director of the British American Security Information Council said “The submarines are big, they’re expensive, with very long lead times. The technology chasing them will be will be 30 or 40 generations on by the time they hit the water.”
“Trident is hostage to American goodwill.”
Finally, although many of the incorrect claims that the British use of Trident is dependent on the US have been debunked, issues regarding the lack of independence of the maintenance protocol of the system still remain. An independent cross-party Trident commission reported in 2014 that the life expectancy of the UK’s nuclear capability could be measured in months and is “hostage to American goodwill”, as the maintenance of the system is performed jointly between the UK and US, some parts are available only via the US and the design and maintenance of the system is a classified American secret.
In summary, Trident renewal is flawed, but will go ahead under a Labour government anyway. Corbyn’s calm and diplomatic language regarding the use of nuclear weapons is an asset to the UK’s security and his stance reflects that of the majority of the British population over the last decade.
You can watch the full exchange between Corbyn and the audience — which lasted 7 minutes (⅙ of his allotted time) — below.
The full debate with May and Corbyn is available on BBC iPlayer.