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Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Britannia's Trident

"The island of Britain, situated on almost the utmost border of the earth, stretches out from the south-west towards the north pole, and is eight hundred miles long and two hundred broad, except where the headlands of sundry promontories stretch farther into the sea. It is poised, so it is said, in the divine balance which supports the whole world."

- St Gildas the Wise

Late yesterday evening I was telephoned by an aged Catholic philosopher exhorting me to email my Member of Parliament and ask him to vote against the motion before Parliament this evening endorsing the replacement of Britain’s Trident submarines. I was unable to comply. When I was a child I was a fervent unilateralist. I remember arguing the point in the playground in my primary school during the 1983 election campaign. (My main frustration was finding someone who was willing to argue the issue with me). After the 1987 election I abandoned unilateralism along with Mr Kinnock.

Almost exactly two months later I was baptised into the Catholic Faith. I subsequently became convinced that the use of Nuclear Weapons was always immoral because they can only be used indiscriminately. I was troubled by the argument presented in the Catechism of Catholic Doctrine written by Herbert McCabe O.P. that if Nuclear Weapons can never be used then it is immoral to implicitly threaten to use them by possessing them in the first place. I thus returned to my former unilateralism after a brief diversion into multilateralism.

However, in more recent years I became convinced, ironically by the same philosopher who rang me last night, that there are circumstances in which Nuclear Weapons might indeed be used. For example, they might indeed be used against a fleet all of whose crew are by definition combatants. This would mean that it is not necessary to rid ourselves of such weapons altogether because they can be used in at least some circumstances.

However, the weapons are maintained principally as a deterrent and it is clear that in many of the circumstances in which it is envisaged an enemy power might fear the weapons might be used their use would be intrinsically immoral. This would seem to count in favour of unilateralism as the ‘enemy fleet’ example is practically irrelevant as this is not a realistic scenario and the real purpose of the weapons is to pose an immoral threat. While it is reasonable for a government to reserve the strategic privilege of refusing to say in what circumstances it might use Nuclear Weapons, this principle does not seem broad enough to cover the implicit threat to e.g. annihilate Moscow.

However, the greater indeterminacy of the threat to the United Kingdom in the present era of Islamic terrorism, Nuclear proliferation and a resurgent China might, it seems, expand the application of this principle to justify a Nuclear deterrent after all in 2007. If this argument works (and I’m not sure) then, it seems to me at least, that many of the ancillary issues about renewal and proliferation fall away. If we have a justification for the possession by the United Kingdom of an independent Nuclear deterrent then, if it is to be truly independent and truly a deterrent, it needs to be as near to top of the range as we can afford.

Britain is a great power. Perhaps it is the second or third most powerful state on earth. The abandonment or downgrading of our nuclear deterrent would probably end this and reduce our ability to preserve the balance of power within the UN Security Council, which at present is undoubtedly favourable to us. Nature abhors a vacuum. If Britain looses its position in the second rank of global power it will be taken by another power. Many many things about my country grieve me sorely but I shudder to think of the inheritance of its global position by any of the other likely candidates.

Nor, I suspect, is it only patriotism which causes me to regret that Britain is only the second greatest power on Earth. Despite its many splendid qualities the USA's tenure of global hegemony has too often been characterised by power without responsibility. Perhaps this is only to be expected given the unfortunate circumstances in which the USA was founded, but it can hardly be denied that the nineteenth century compares favourably with the twentieth. To adapt a famous remark of Churchill's: Britain is the worst country imaginable to have ruling the world, apart from all the others anyone has ever thought of.