Giles Fraser Guardian/UK 23 July, 2016
In one of her first acts as prime minister, Theresa May sat down to write to the commanders of our four nuclear submarines, laying out what she would like them to do in the event of a nuclear attack. These handwritten instructions are locked in the boats’ safes, only to be opened if an attack has knocked out all contact with government. No one has ever opened one.
On Wednesday night, on Radio 4’s Moral Maze, Major General Patrick Cordingley DSO, commander of the Desert Rats during the first Gulf war – so no bleeding-heart liberal – said that he thought it would be the moral duty of commanders not to fire, even if Mrs May had instructed them to do so. It was astonishing to hear a senior military figure urging fellow officers to disobey a direct order from the PM.
The general was not being squeamish – he was responsible for tens of thousands of deaths in Iraq. Rather, he was making the point that if Britain had been the victim of a nuclear attack, then the game was already up and there would be little left for us to defend. Firing in such circumstances would be tactically pointless. Indeed, it would be murderous revenge, nothing more. And who wants their last action on earth to be one of mass genocide?
Speaking in the House of Commons during the Trident debate, Mrs May said she was perfectly prepared to order her commanders to fire. She has to say that, of course. There’s no point in having a deterrent if the PM indicates in advance that she wouldn’t use it. Even so, locked inside those safes, what the top-secret letters actually say is a totally different matter. Remember, the only reason to open them would be if deterrence had failed. And there would be absolutely no point in firing. In other words, given her commitment to the idea of deterrence, the only moral thing would be for Mrs May to tell the world she has written “fire” when, in fact, she has written something else entirely. And that, we might reasonably suppose from subsequent comments, is precisely what Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher did. It should come as no surprise: this is poker and everybody lies.
So parliament has just committed well over £100bn on a weapons system that we won’t use, that we mustn’t use, and that even the Russians know we won’t use. They know this because the only situation in which we would think about pressing the button would be precisely the situation in which there was no longer any point in pressing the button.
Tories voted for Trident out of some backward sense of patriotism, still pretending the UK is a big player in the politics of global power, and New Labour voted for it as an act of non-virtue signalling, still deliberately distancing themselves from the electoral kryptonite of those pacifist hippies of the 1970s.
The old argument for nuclear weapons during the cold war was simple. We didn’t have the conventional forces to resist the Russians if they drove their tanks into Germany. If they invaded, we could only stop them with tactical nuclear weapons. This nuclear option was primarily envisaged as a first-strike option. But does anyone seriously imagine that we would do the same today if the Russians invaded Latvia? MPs are still going on about a deterrent even though any plausible scenario for this to be employed has disappeared. Deterrent is an empty threat, a retro tactical theory, marooned by totally different geopolitical circumstances.
Sitting opposite General Cordingley in the Moral Maze studio was Michael Portillo, who used to be the hawkish secretary of state for defence before he retired to play with his trains. Like Cordingley, he too is against the renewal of Trident, seeing our few hundred or so nuclear warheads as irrelevant in a world in which the Russians and the US have several thousand nukes each. The world has changed since the cold war, but too consumed with internal politics, the House of Commons has failed to notice. [Abbrev]