it going to be possible to have a rational discussion about Trident and nuclear
policy during this general election? We
certainly need one as the bellicose sounds and war manoeuvres on and around the
Korean Peninsula remind us, but the chances are not promising. A good place to
start is by looking at Jeremy Corbyn's response to questions about his nuclear defence
strategy in a recent interview (The
Andrew Marr Show, BBC1, 23 April), which drew instant accusations that he
was undermining the security of the United Kingdom. Since the issues which he
raised were barely
reported, it is worth going back to the original text:
First Corbyn was asked by Marr, on the assumption that he might become
Prime Minister, what he would say in the so-called Letters of Last Resort, when
he would have to "write four letters to the captains of Britain’s nuclear
submarines telling them, instructing them what to do if this country’s attacked
in a nuclear strike." After Marr
had pressed the point, Corbyn replied that he would give "a strict
instruction, follow orders when given."
To which Marr responded: "So
you don’t tell them to fire or not to fire. They don’t know what to do."
does not look as if Corbyn had been
adequately prepared for this question: the point about the Letters of Last
Resort is that they should only be opened if there is no longer anyone left in the
government to give "orders". But he went on to say that it would be a
disaster for the world if nuclear weapons were ever used, and we can assume
that Corbyn as Prime Minister would instruct the sub. commanders not to add
more devastation to a nuclear war that had already begun. In the language of
nuclear deterrence (and we should not balk at using it) the deterrent would
have failed to deter, and therefore there would be no point in using it.
Alternatively, Corbyn could have said quite reasonably that the contents
of the Letters of Last Resort have always been secret and he was not going to
break the convention in advance, even if he decided to do so once in office.
(Again, it looks as if he had not been properly briefed on this). At least we might have expected Andrew Marr to
ask Theresa May what she had put in those letters, and to press the point as
sharply (but of course he didn't when he interviewed her a week later).
was quite clear on two points in
this discussion, first that he advocates a policy of no-first-use of nuclear weapons,
and second that Trident will be
included in a Strategic Defence Review if Labour forms a government. It will
come as no surprise that his Tory
critics while condemning Corbyn failed to address the no-first-use question
specifically. For to denounce
no-first-use would require reminding people that it is the official policy of
the UK (and its NATO allies) not to rule out using nuclear weapons first, even
in the event of a non-nuclear attack against them. The only nuclear countries
to declare a policy of no-first-use are China and India, although it is
interesting to recall an attempt
by Germany in 1998, with some support from Canada, to challenge NATO policy. Not
surprisingly, its no-first-use proposal was quickly slapped down by the US, the
UK and France.
On the question of a Strategic Defence Review, Corbyn pointed out that
an incoming government often has one. Again, he could have been clearer by
acknowledging that current Labour policy supports Trident, but that this will
be subject to review. New governments are entitled after all to review the policies
they have inherited and there is no reason why the nuclear weapons programme
should be exempt -- though it too often has been.
This is no academic debate. On Good Friday I switched on Radio 4 and
heard a cheery voice asking "Are we about to see the start of World War
Three"? (it was a trailer for Any
Answers). But this is a debate where
we have to work hard, and be well informed, if it is to be raised above the
level of ignorance and polemics.
Commentary for Oxford
CND Newsletter, May 2017.