Cold warheads and hot tempers: the return of Labour’s nuclear wars

HERE ARE A FEW first thoughts on Labour’s upcoming defence review – or rather the Trident bit of it. I don’t expect anyone to take much notice – most of the people involved seem to have held entrenched views for at least thirty-five years. You might want to put on some 80s music while reading this. If you’re old enough, it might make you feel young again.

Trident (and I mean here Trident with nuclear warheads, not the “I can’t believe it’s not Trident” version without them) is not essentially useless. It could be used, perhaps in some circumstances it would be used. So, it has uses. But Trident as a defence mechanism is, literally, useless. It’s value as a defence lies purely in it not being used.

There are no conceivable circumstances in which we could use Trident and remain “defended”. I find it impossible to imagine a British prime minister firing a Trident missile at a non-nuclear target. I tried hard to conjure up the image of some deranged figure in Downing Street, presumably drunk and egged on by a latter-day Dr Strangelove, moving his or her quivering finger towards the “button” (yes, I know there isn’t really a button) to fire a 4.8 megaton nuclear bomb at some god-forsaken desert town. But I just can’t see it. Can you?

If Trident is ever going to be used it would be either in retaliation for a nuclear attack on Britain which has already taken place or as a pre-emptive first strike against someone who might attack us with nuclear weapons. In both cases, we would have lost. In the first case, there should be no need to explain why. In the second, we have assume that anyone with nuclear weapons who is nasty enough to be worth nuking would retaliate with a nuclear strike against us. We end up with the same result. In either scenario, Trident would have failed to defend us.

Trident has no military use — it cannot be used in any military situation to further any military objective. Defence chiefs like the prestige Trident brings but I wonder how many would resist a credible promise to spend the entire cost (now estimated at £167bn) – or even half of it – on their conventional forces. Trident’s main value is diplomatic and “pre-military”: that it could defend us, not by being used, but by deterring someone from attacking us, whether or not they had nuclear weapons.

The deterrent argument has changed since I used to have these arguments in pubs in the 1980s (when I shifted from being a unilateralist to being a warmongering US lackey, apparently), when it was all about a complex game of bluff and counter bluff with the Soviet Union – a game which, like death itself, could drive you mad if you thought about it too much. Now, the question we have to ask ourselves is this: is there anyone out there who is likely to behave differently towards us because we have Trident from how they would behave if we didn’t?

Trident did not deter al-Qaeda from attacking us. It’s hard to believe that the reason Islamic State/Daesh have not yet attacked Britain is because we have Trident submarines lurking in the ocean somewhere (France is also a nuclear power after all). Kim Jong- un? Really? Does he even know where Britain is? The theory of deterrence rests on a degree of rational self-interest on the part of your opponent – it doesn’t apply to madmen.

There is also the argument that Trident is needed to protect us against future threats we don’t yet know about – Donald Rumsfeld’s famous “unknown unknowns”. The problem with this is that, if these threats are genuinely “unknown”, how do we know that Trident is the best or even a good way of protecting ourselves against them? We might just as well double the size of the army, build a fifty-foot wall around Britain or fill the channel tunnel with cement on the grounds that it might protect us against something.

Perhaps we think we can discern the faint outlines of these potential threats (the shadows of Rumsfeld’s “known unknowns”). What if China or Russia turn nasty? What if a relatively sophisticated state with a slightly unhinged leadership (Iran?) decides to have a pop at us, or tries to hold us to ransom? The problem here is that what evidence we have already points to Trident being useless in these situations. You might well think China and Russia are already quite nasty: Trident (or the French nuclear deterrent) didn’t stop Putin from annexing Crimea, destabilising our “ally” Ukraine or unleashing radioactive weapons on the streets of London in 2006. And the Iranian leadership has been slightly unhinged for most of my lifetime. Where is the evidence that Iran has ever posed a significant threat to Britain, or that the behaviour of the Iranian leadership has been changed one iota by the existence of Britain’s four Trident submarines? In these circumstances, Trident is, at best, a very over-priced insurance policy against a very remote risk – like paying thousands of pounds a year to insure yourself against a meteor strike. (Yes, it could happen, the results would be catastrophic, but, really, are you going to bother?)

The best argument for Trident is one its supporters are obviously reluctant to put forward. It’s that Trident is simply about showing off, in a world where showing off is, like it or lump it, important. Possession of a big fat nuclear weapons system is like a ticket to the VIP enclosure – it gets you noticed, it impresses people, it makes them think you must be a very important country indeed. It’s no coincidence that the five permanent members of the UN Security Council are the world’s five oldest nuclear powers. No country that has acquired nuclear weapons has ever been willing to give them up. Viewed this way, Trident is a big fat fee we pay (much of it to the Americans) for a seat at the top table. It’s about diplomacy, not military defence.

I think it’s this loss of diplomatic face that Trident supporters really fear. And they may be right – diplomacy is an important component of defence, perhaps the most important part. But the question is whether this diplomatic golden ticket is really worth it, or whether we can do something better with a quarter of a trillion dollars.

My final thought is that if we do need a nuclear deterrent, why does it have to be Trident? Could we not develop our own fully independent system, as the French have managed to do? That would create even more jobs in the UK and give a welcome boost to our science and engineering sector. It might be on a smaller scale than Trident, but I reckon no one likes being nuked, by a Trident submarine or anything else.

All of this assumes, of course, that the defence review is looking for the right defence strategy for the country, not just the right one for the Labour Party – which may be a different question entirely.


It’s complicated

LONDON, MONDAY: People often feel the most profound question they can ask after a senseless killing is “why”? It speaks not only to bafflement faced with the apparent meaningless of the particular act, but also to our more existential need to find explanations for the things that happen to us and around us, and ultimately our search for a meaning for life (and death) itself.

On Saturday afternoon, someone unfurled a huge banner in Paris’s Place de la République saying, “Pourquoi?” Perhaps the literal translation, “for what”, is better here than “why”. Because “why” doesn’t seem a particularly useful question to ask about something like the Charlie Hebdo massacre. The killers would have no difficultly answering it, and we know more or less what they would say. “For what?” or “to what end?” would be a more difficult question and a truthful answer would be revealing. What these people wanted could range from the utterly delusional (a global Islamic caliphate), through the implausible (civil war in France) to the much more terrifyingly possible (permanent alienation between the Muslim and non-Muslim communities in Europe). My gut feeling is that jihadist “leaders” will tend towards the more realistic (and dangerous) end of that spectrum; the actual killers are more likely to be delusional in their motives. But who knows?

Rather than (metaphorically) asking the killers why they did it, we might more usefully ask ourselves why these people think so differently to us. Why do they not recognise and respect free speech? Why do they not see religious observance as a private matter and not something to be imposed on other people? Why do they see ISIL’s statelet in Syria and Iraq, where life is indeed “nasty, brutish and short”, as preferable to free, prosperous and cultured France? Why do they believe evident fantasies? Why do they believe them with such fervour that they are prepared to kill for them? And why do they hold their own lives so cheap?

This has nothing to do with responsibility for the killings, which rest squarely with the gunmen and those who aided, abetted and encouraged them. But when we start to look at why they thought they way they did, it ought to be clear that the responsibility for that is much wider.

We might look at the characteristics and training of imams in French mosques, at the responsibilities of parents and the care system involved in their upbringing, at the way radical Islamism functions as a nihilist death cult, with a particular appeal to alienated and psychologically disturbed youth. We might also look at the French prison system (two of the Paris gunmen were apparently further “radicalised” at the notorious Fleury-Mérogis prison south of Paris, though it didn’t start there), at the way “ordinary” Muslim criminals are rehabilitated, at the culture of the banlieus (the often-desolate suburban zones that ring most large French cities), at youth unemployment, ghettoisation on housing estates, even mental health services. The list could go on and on, but we can’t simply walk away from this and pretend that having people who are primarily and viscerally motivated by a hatred for the society they live in has nothing to do with the way that society works.

If we hadn’t realised it before, the Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Casher attacks have revealed that violent jihadism, particularly in Western countries, is an extremely complex problem with many, many causes. There are religious and geopolitical aspects, of course, but also personal and psychological ones. Many of the jihadist terrorists who have perpetrated atrocities in Western countries seem to show signs of psychological disturbance. A 2002 court psychiatric report on the Hyper Casher gunman, Amédy Coulibaly, found an “immature and psychopathic personality” (and one thing jihadist terrorists seem to have in common is an enormous capacity for self-delusion). It could be that this, combined with a sense of racial and religious grievance, instruction from manipulative and “hate-filled” preachers (such as the Kouachi brothers’ “guru” Faris Benyettou), connections with “ordinary” criminal gangs into drugs and petty theft, and a sense of nihilism and alienation to set against the perverted glamour of killing and dying for a cause, produces this murderous cocktail. Or it could be even more complicated than that.

It’s not good enough to pin everything on mass immigration or the impossibility of different traditions living side by side. It’s not good enough to put it all down to handful of “radical imams” and internet “hate preachers”. Still less to common criminality. But neither is it good enough to blame it all on George Bush’s invasion of Iraq and poverty and unemployment on bleak housing estates.

All these factors and more need to be carefully unpicked and dealt with, both ruthlessly and sensitively (a difficult but not impossible balancing act). Are we up to it? We will have to be.