End of a Nuclear Weapons Era: Can Britain Make History?

By Johnson, Rebecca | Arms Control Today, April 2006 | Go to article overview

End of a Nuclear Weapons Era: Can Britain Make History?


Johnson, Rebecca, Arms Control Today


The United Kingdom has begun to debate whether to replace the current Trident nuclear weapons system, which will cease to be operational in the early 2020s, or to become the first acknowledged nuclear-weapon state to comply fully with Article VI of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) by eliminating the British arsenal.

A decision is expected sometime in this parliament, whose term will end no later than 2010. Just before last year's general election, the government of Prime Minister Tony Blair announced that it would need to consider a follow-on to Trident, but it sought to portray the decision as essentially technical-whether to extend the life of the current submarines or build new platforms.

The government's attempt to slip the decision through quietly failed, and a contentious debate about the future of British nuclear weapons and nonproliferation policy has now been kindled. Politicians and retired military officers are taking sides, the grassroots peace movement is mobilizing, and members of parliament are demanding to participate in the decision-making.

Blair has made clear that he believes the United Kingdom should retain "the independent nuclear deterrent." Yet, his defense secretary, John Reid, has tried to reassure members of parliament that no decision has been taken on any replacement and that the government would "listen to" their views. However, there was no commitment to either a debate or vote on the matter in parliament.1

In an editorial written just before his death in July 2005, Robin Cook, who had served previously as Blair's foreign secretary, raised questions about the expensive building and upgrading of facilities at the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston, to which the government committed substantial additional funds well before any debate or decision on the future of British nuclear weapons. He said, "Down at Aldermaston they are spending hundreds of millions of pounds of your money on a refit of the production line for nuclear warheads. We are assured this does not mean that any decision has been made to replace the Trident nuclear system. Dear me no, the investment is merely intended to keep open our options."2

Having been one of the most senior Cabinet members in Blair's first government, Cook might be forgiven his cynicism, but this is not just a parochial question of whether British taxpayers' money should be spent in this way before a democratic decision has been taken. The United Kingdom's decision is likely to have international consequences too. An accident of timing means that the question of Trident's replacement has come to the fore just when the nonproliferation regime is under heavy and damaging pressure, as illustrated by the nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea and the ignominious failure of the NPT review conference in May 2005. Now London risks opening up a further large wound in the nonproliferation regime if it tells the world that nuclear weapons are far too valuable for even these small islands off Western Europe to think of giving them up for at least the next 50 years.

Already heating up in national editorials and meetings around the country, the debate is split less along ideological or party lines than around arguments about the utility and relevance of nuclear weapons for addressing 21st-century security challenges. The choice was summed up in an editorial by the British former secretary of state for international development, Clare Short, who wrote that, "[s]hould we continue to act as a fig leaf for the U.S. and pretend that a nuclear weapon supplied and serviced by them somehow makes us a significant power? Or do we understand that the threat of global warming, the growth of the world population, and the loss of environmental resources constitute the most important threats to the future of human civilization?"3

Michael Portillo, a Conservative former defense secretary, noted that Blair appeared still to be nursing scars from the bitter 1980s battles over nuclear policy. …

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