It is widely assumed that Tony Blair will be remembered as the leader who achieved unprecedented electoral success for Labour but led Britain into two disastrous wars. Yet if the UK’s current trajectory holds, Tony Blair’s most enduring legacy looks likely to be his decisive determination to maintain Britain’s nuclear weapons for the next half century. Tony Blair forced through parliament the bill that underpins the legitimacy of the current government’s nuclear policy. It was Tony Blair that engineered the current dogma among “progressive” parties that multilateralism is the only way, while unilateral disarmament is politically impossible and dangerous. Consequently, it is Tony Blair and New Labour’s legacy that all three major parties are reduced to squabbling over the specifications of Britain’s weapons of mass destruction rather than questioning whether we need them at all.
Labour and the Liberal Democrat supporters are overwhelmingly against renewing British nuclear weapons, yet both parties’ leadership take every opportunity to categorically insist that they will not pursue this policy. In a recent interview with the Guardian the Lib Dems second in command, Danny Alexander, questioned at great length the need for renewing Trident, yet made sure to point out that he is “not a unilateralist”. Meanwhile, Ed Miliband’s most recent speech on nuclear weapons began with the same proclamation; “I am a multilateralist, not a unilateralist”. Intuitively, this sounds winning; doing things together in most regards is better than doing things alone. Unfortunately in the case of British nuclear weapons it means committing to 87 billion worth of WMD for the next 50 years. WMDs that the majority of the world considers abhorrent, the UK has no security need for and that the majority British public does not want. How did the UK nuclear discourse get reduced to this?
The traditional notion that multilateralism is always necessary in nuclear disarmament stems from the deeply embedded belief that any unilateral action will dangerously destabilise the geopolitical balance. In the worst case this provides your antagonists with the opportunity for a surprise attack by which you will either occupied or obliterated. However, this logic is predicated upon the existence of an enemy that is willing and able to exploit your weakness, and that is not a very precise description of the world we live in – and especially not for the UK. In the 2006 White Paper that lays out the plans for renewing Britain’s aging nuclear arsenal (Trident), Tony Blair’s last government openly admitted that the UK faces no existential threats. There is no Red Army loitering over the horizon – quite the opposite – it is NATO that has a large conventional force advantage these days. The White Paper also stated that there was no evidence that the UK’s decision to disarm unilaterally would influence any other states’ decision either to acquire nuclear weapons or to follow suite. It makes explicitly clear that UK’s decision to have nuclear weapons is irrelevant to the geopolitical stability and security. If one accepts these assertions, as the Blair government clearly did (it was the main basis for Blair’s decision to renew Trident), then the apparent security necessity for the UK to stick to its multilateral mantra doesn’t make much sense.
The explanation for this apparent contradiction between ends and means seems to lie not in security logic, but instead in the Labour party’s contemporary political history. The Labour Party suffered two humiliating and resounding defeats in the 1983 and 1987 general elections. In both elections, unilateral disarmament was central plank in the manifesto and widely considered to be a large contributing factor to their defeats. Since the New Labour revolution, led by Blair in the 1990s the Labour party has sought to distance itself from the policies of the 1980s, among them the notion of unilateral nuclear disarmament. Even though the world and the security outlook have changed beyond all recognition since those policies failed and those defeats were the result of much more than the stance on nuclear policy, the Labour party leadership still considers the question electorally toxic. Neil Kinnock contentiously dropped Labour’s anti-nuclear stance in 1991, curiously, since the Cold War was in fact fizzling out. But it wasn’t until Tony Blair was elected leader that Labour started generating a real vim for the bomb. One can understand how this made short-term political sense, but at the same time it produced a long-term policy predicament: How can you tie yourself to nuclear weapons and still appear to be progressive?
With a brand new Trident fleet under his command, Tony Blair’s government dedicated itself to traditional piecemeal multilateral disarmament initiatives but critically did nothing that would have any significant effect on British nuclear weapons doctrine. Under Blair’s leadership, UK became a self declared “disarmament laboratory” and never missed a chance to talk loftily about its dream of a nuclear weapon free world. If anyone doubted this, they needed only look at the UK’s comparatively small nuclear arsenal as proof of its claim to be the most progressive of the nuclear weapon states. Never mind that everybody knows the UK’s minimum deterrence doctrine is a function of economic limitations rather than humanitarian zeal. Nonetheless, the message was clear; with our peaceful credentials ensured, it was up to the rest of the nuclear-armed states to do their part. By repeating that the UK nuclear disarmament was dependent the Russia and the US’s disarmament, New Labour constructed a narrative under which they could look progressive while simultaneously maintaining that the British’s nuclear weapons were “necessary” – in other words: Janus-faced multilateralism.
This story is not unproblematic, as is evident in our current predicament. Painting ourselves as champions of disarmament is incompatible with committing to nuclear weapons for another 50 years. If the UK happens to get its wish and multilateral disarmament quickens, then the UK might just end up having to retire its multi billion nuclear submarines before they have even been built. They would become a 30 billion pound monument in homage of Britain’s dedication to weapons of mass destruction.
A more likely scenario, however, is that Trident becomes an obstacle to disarmament, handcuffing the UK to WMDs – rhetorically, economically and physically – and further undermining the UK’s frantic attempts to prevent other states from acquiring the same weapons we believe constitute our “ultimate insurance”. The world cannot be expected to keep a straight face when we claim to be a disarmament laboratory after just committing to spend billions of pounds on extending our nuclear weapons system for 50 more years. Indeed, the UK as a ‘proliferation laboratory’ would be closer to the truth; we provide a full and complete model for any mid ranking country looking to justify their acquisition of nuclear weapons.
The UK policy may appear progressive when it is compared to the policies of the other nuclear-armed states, but this is a false comparison. Nobody believes the UK security needs are the same as those of China or the US, nor do we want them to be. Our needs are much more similar to those of Germany, Italy, Japan, France and other mid ranking powers. Yes, France has nuclear weapons too, but like the UK, the rationale for France’s continued obsession with nuclear weapons has its explanation in history and perceived political prestige – not security. The UK’s rationale is that it needs nuclear weapons in case a nuclear threat re-emerges. This smacks of nostalgic longing for the days when the UK was great and actually had enemies to deter. Blair’s happy relationship with nuclear weapons is reflective of his own fantasies of Britain as a great power “punching above its weight” and as a guardian of international peace and security – whether the locals want their security maintained for them or not. This is not a dream the public shares; Blair’s militarism is a chapter in contemporary British history that most of us would like to forget. In this light it, it is hard to see why the decision to renew Britain’s nuclear deterrent for another half-a century, which the same man bullied through parliament, should be left unquestioned.
More than 40 countries could build nuclear weapons if they wanted to. David Cameron recently described British Nuclear weapons as our “ultimate insurance policy”; if this were even halfway true then most if not all countries with the capacity to develop nuclear weapons would already have done so by now. Unilateral disarmament does not mean jeopardizing British security, it means accepting that the security doctrine of a country like Germany is also a viable strategy for Britain in the 21st century.
The final decision on the Trident renewal has been postponed until the next parliament, which means that the next government will have a last chance to reverse Britain’s proliferatory WMD-policy. But a reversal of the 2007 decision cannot be done without addressing the unilateral taboo. It is worth remembering that Britain actually has a long history of progressive unilateralism. We abolished slavery seemingly against our interests; we relinquished the empire while the French scoffed. Now we have an incredible opportunity to be on the right side of history again by becoming the first recognized nuclear weapon state to relinquish nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, Ed Miliband’s willingness to deal with his own party’s history appears limited to bold words. He has so far been either unable or unwilling to actually do something about it. Miliband may claim that New Labour is dead, but Blair’s nuclear legacy is very much alive.
My video of a Naive Panda and Bespectacled Bear discussing the wisdom of the UK’s nuclear weapons spending during austerity.