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Does the monarchy still matter?

Will Self, Eric Hobsbawm, Stephen Bayley, Peter Tatchell and others discuss whether we should call t

Richard Eyre, theatre director
It’s hard to deny our resemblance to devout worshippers of a cult: we crook the neck, we bend the spine, we bob and curtsey, we metaphorically cross ourselves towards the altar of monarchy. And just as religious faith defies the light of reason, so we are reluctant to examine the monarchy with anything more than an irritated shrug. No government will seriously tamper with the “constitution” (whatever that is), so we end up with the monarchy in the position of the monkeys on Gibraltar: a superstitious charm against the decline of our territorial integrity. But we won’t grow up as a democracy until we resist the consolation of the English religion.

AS Byatt, novelist
The monarchy itself is faintly absurd. When I express republican sentiments my husband points out what a huge expenditure of money, parliamentary time and national energy would have to be diverted, from other urgent causes and concerns, to abolishing the monarchy. The other thing I have observed is that the European democracies I find most sympathetic are in fact monarchies – Holland, Norway, Sweden, modern Spain, even Belgium, for all the tensions. So I don’t think about it much, most of the time. There are more important things to get excited about.

Peregrine Worsthorne, journalist
If a majority of the nation wanted to put an end to monarchy, then, of course, it ought to go. But most emphatically a majority does not want that. While a majority would want to kick out the present lot of self-serving politicians, bankers, mandarins and BBC executives, for the Queen they still have great affection and respect. Which is not surprising since of all our great institutions, the monarchy is the only one which actually works. Unlike aristocracy, which divided the nation, monarchy holds it together. In other words, today’s haters of the monarchy are little more than bigots.

Peter Tatchell, human rights activist
Monarchy is incompatible with democracy. According to the elitist values of the monarchical system, the most stupid, immoral royal is more fit to be head of state than the wisest, most ethical commoner. Monarchs get the job for life, no matter how appallingly they behave. The alternative is not a US-style executive president. We could have an elected president, but a low-cost, purely ceremonial one, like the Irish. This would ensure that the people are sovereign, not the royals. And we get an important safeguard: if we don’t like our head of state, we can elect a new one.

Susie Orbach, psychotherapist
A monarch serves a symbolic purpose, as the overarching figure on to which we project the capacity to care for us and go before us as a representative. But that is an idealisation. The monarchy is the representative of a society still riven with class inequalities and the need to position oneself, always. The monarchy creates insecurities in all, of whatever background.

Eric Hobsbawm, historian
Can we disentangle the effect of the monarchy in general from the effect of having lived for almost 60 years under one Queen? In fact, most of the arguments about it take for granted that she is an element of continuity in Britain and a way for most people to identify with the country that is more effective than a national football team, because she is reliably on top all the time. The arguments about monarchy are therefore mostly about the future. Like Queen Victoria, she has seen off republicanism as a serious political force, maybe even in Scotland. There is no reason to believe that constitutional monarchy will be less viable in the 21st century than in the 20th, when it proved to be the most reliable framework of liberal democratic states (Belgium, Holland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Japan and, since 1976, Spain).

Stephen Bayley, critic
I’ve no gripe with constitutional monarchy, but I’m not so very keen on the House of Windsor: I’d love the chance to redesign the whole glum family. Their public face is sullen and anti-intellectual; their values seem more suburban than royal. I suppose there’s something deadly accurate in that observation: you don’t find much wit, optimism or style in the suburbs. Nor, as it happens, in Buckingham Palace.

Amanda Craig, novelist
Monarchy keeps nostalgia high on our cultural agenda: historical fiction dominates our literature, drama and the kind of architecture Prince Charles admires. We turned to modernity too savagely in the 1950s, ripping out much that was good, and to some extent the retro values ascribed to monarchy did help to preserve an essential Britishness that I love. That said, the monarchy invests nostalgia with an authenticity I resent, artistically. As a taxpayer, I think any further financial support and police protection for the Queen’s other children and many grandchildren, plus her request for a new private jet or a pay rise, should be funded by the sale of a palace or two.

Michael Rosen, poet
The monarchy makes fools of us. It demands and receives deference for reasons of birth. This skews our ability to devise ceremonies and honours for ourselves and blights the running of the state with silly bowing and scraping. More seriously, the politics of monarchy creates a false unity of nation even as our real rulers play roulette with billions while millions of “subjects” worry about their homes and bills.

A L Kennedy, novelist
When I was invited to meet the Queen at a garden party, I felt that I couldn’t go, because the monarchy represents so many awful things – not that I think the Queen is an awful woman. She does the best job that you probably could do.

Darcus Howe, journalist
For former colonial citizens, the monarchy has irretrievably declined in status, ever since the international struggle for independence. In Trinidad and Tobago, where I was born, the anti-colonials’ slogan was “massa day done”, meaning the role of the master is over. We came ashore in the mass immigration of the Sixties with a strong republican sentiment, which resides in our heads and hearts until this day. Bring on the republic.

Roy Hattersley, politician
The monarchy has three detrimental effects on society: it epitomises and encourages the idea of a social hierarchy; it is based on the belief that blood and birth, rather than personal merit, are enough to justify respect or even admiration; it encourages nostalgia for the past, in which it is firmly rooted, rather than hope for the future. It is also very expensive. But that is a trivial detriment compared with the other damaging effects.

Catherine Fieschi, think tank director
I’m no natural monarchist, but the monarchy has made two huge contributions to British culture and identity. The first is via parliamentary politics, by maintaining a monopoly on pomp and circumstance, which encourages a relatively open political sphere. The second, perhaps paradoxically, is to the UK’s capacity to remain outward-looking and confident. The risks associated with a fast-moving and globalised 21st century seem to be offset by a clever little patch of adaptive timelessness and the reminder of a culture that is eminently resilient.

D B C Pierre, novelist
Monarchy remains the only metronome in the land not fibrillating at a thousand beats per second. It’s our keeper of continuity, anchoring us to a historical identity impervious to the next Windows upgrade; and that in an age when much that was culturally familiar has gone, been disconnected, or usurped for profit. While for now monarchy may seem more a pathway into the past than the future, there’s a sense that it’s a contingent blessing yet to find new definition, in a similar limbo to the culture itself, between empire and whatever comes next. This century is one of bold rolling of the dice, and for now the monarchy sits tight. But history is despotic – and the Crown still has its dice to play.

Will Self, novelist
Despite people’s general willingness to accept the monarchy uncritically – as a species of constitutional wallpaper, the alleged undercoat of our tolerant settlement – the fact remains that it lies at the very apex of a pyramid of hierarchy, one that is mostly comprised of people who have unearned wealth, undemocratic power, undeserved prestige – or all three. Anyone who accepts an honour from the British government, or an invitation to tea at Buck House; anyone who shows deference to the monarchy, or even subscribes to an institution with royal patrons, partakes of this mass delusion: that the only way a modern democracy can be governed is by profoundly anti-democratic means; that the only way to treat citizens is as subjects. In my view, the British people will only come of political age with the abolition of the monarchy.

Melissa Benn, writer
The monarchy reflects and reinforces a paralysis at the heart of our political culture. The charm or idiocy of individual royals is merely a distraction from this, although royal antics feed very conveniently into an increasingly trashy culture. We rant against the dodgy expenses claims of MPs but say nothing about millions shelled out by taxpayers to this unaccountable institution. Just ask Richard Rogers if the monarchy wields only token power.

Joan Bakewell, broadcaster
The royal family has very little impact now. They contribute a sense of background continuity simply by being there, and that reassures many people. But what is really dynamic and important in today’s world passes them by.

Marina Lewycka, novelist
I think the monarchy has become a sort of beloved national soap opera, along the lines of an ermine-trimmed Corrie, but a bit more expensive to run. I must confess to finding it highly entertaining, despite my aspirations to high-mindedness. It presses all the right (very British) buttons: social class, inheritance, wealth, family intrigue and bad behaviour, among others. But it gets a bit repetitive and it can’t be very nice for the actors, who are stuck in roles they can’t escape from. Maybe it’s time to draw the series to a close.

Camila Batmanghelidjh, Founder and Director, Kids Company
Blooming marvellous, and why not.

Roger Scruton, philosopher
The monarchy has been effective in providing a focus of loyalty above politics. It has made it possible for people who disagree radically about how the nation should be governed nevertheless to share an object of affection by which the nation as a whole is symbolised. In a world of mass media and screen addiction, however, in which visible celebrities attract more attention than invisible royals, monarchy finds it hard to compete. In a crisis, things might change, and it is certain that there will be plenty of crises in the years to come during which symbols of national loyalty will be needed. In such crises Americans turn to the constitution; we turn to the monarchy, which is our constitution-substitute. It seems to me to be a better solution, since it has the vagueness, and open-ness to interpretation, of history itself.

Agnes Poirier, journalist
It may have learned to live in harmony with a solid parliamentary regime, but the monarchy in has had many pernicious effects on British culture: most of all it has infantilised its subjects who think very little about citizenship in general and what it is to be a citizen in particular. The fact that the head of State, the monarch, is also the head of the Church has entailed a culture where religion pervades every aspect of society: it is nowhere and everywhere at the same time. It is high time the British grew up and abolished once and for all the Ancien Régime under which they live.

Billy Bragg, musician
The most pernicious effect of the monarchy on our society is to be seen in the concept of the Crown in Parliament. It allows the Prime Minister to declare war, sign treaties and appoint cronies to the legislature, among other things, without first consulting MPs. A new constitutional settlement is needed to remove the monarchy from the legislative process and make the people sovereign in their own parliament. Would this necessitate the abolition of the monarchy? I don’t think so. Living in a multicultural society means that you have to show respect for beliefs and practices that you yourself may not adhere to. That includes the monarchy, morris dancing and the Church of England.

Maggie Gee, novelist
If the monarchy didn’t exist, you might not invent it, but in these islands it has evolved its rituals and its constraints through a long history of popular struggle. I definitely prefer what we have – a wise and rather witty female head of state who is part of our global identity, recognised in Africa, Asia, the Americas – to the boredom of, say, a President Kinnock or President Clarke. Elizabeth II has tried to be the Queen of all the people, and Charles is serious about the big things: education, global warming, conservation. Would we be better off with a series of heads of state tied to the barren two-party system?

David Cannadine
In The English Constitution, Walter Bagehot famously distinguished between the ‘dignified’ parts, which were largely ceremonial, and the ‘efficient parts’, where governing was actually carried on. In the former category came the monarchy and the House of Lords, in the latter the Cabinet and the House of Commons. It’s a perceptive formulation, which describes many aspects of British institutional life, but scarcely our constitution in these febrile times. The ‘efficient’ part no longer seems efficient (and is certainly not dignified), while the ‘dignified’ part still seems dignified (and is also quite efficient). Whatever would Bagehot have made of that?

Alain de Botton, philosopher
The monarchy is an embodiment of history. In this sense, it runs entirely counter to the pace of the media and of technology; which scours relentlessly around for symbols of modernity and advance. It is also a somewhat irrational institution, something for which it seems loved and hated by different sections of society. It asks us to entertain the idea that people could rule over us not because we voted for them, but just because they and their descendants put their stake in the ground before we appeared on earth.

Johann Hari, journalist
Having a hereditary head of state has a warping effect that runs through British politics and culture. Huge powers remain invested in the Crown - and we now have an heir to the throne who says he intends to be a "political King", using the "responsibility" and "wisdom" of his position to promote his own agenda. Of course, passing through Elizabeth Windsor's womb gives Charles no more "responsibility" or “wisdom” than the next mad person you see screaming at the bus stop - but he doesn't seem to know it. The powers he will have to promote his ignorant anti-scientific, anti-Enlightenment agenda are enormous. To name just one: if we have a tie-break election - a Bush vs Gore - the monarch picks the Prime Minister. It’s hardly minor, is it?

The cultural effects are just as toxic. Having an unchosen aristocratic head of state – surrounded by braying toffs – sends ripples of snobbery throughout the culture. It strengthens the most backward, disempowering parts of Britain against the rest of us.

Chuka Umunna, Labour’s Parliamentary Candidate for Streatham ­
The monarchy endures and is still relevant for many but I do wonder about its longevity. There is a strange paradox: the ‘Firm’ clearly sees its salvation lying with the next generation - Wills, Harry and co - bicycling towards the Scandinavian model of royalty, whilst showcasing a sense of duty through their service in the armed forces. The Court around them has also allowed their charges to appear in the tabloid media, spilling out of clubs, bleary eyed like so many other young people.

However, deference has long sustained our monarchy too. People still curtsy and bow to the Queen – up to now it has been instilled in us - but I cannot see my generation doing the same to a King William: “why should we, he’s no different to me”, many might claim, and that’s before attention is turned to the cost of the ancient institution.

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Happiness is a huge gun: Cold War thrillers and the modern nuclear deterrent

For all that books and films laud Britain's strength, ultimately, they show that our power is interdependent.

Francisco “Pistols” Scaramanga, the ­assassin for hire in Ian Fleming’s 1965 James Bond novel, The Man With the Golden Gun, has invested more than money in his favourite weapon. Bond’s colleagues in the Secret Service have concluded from Freudian analysis that Scaramanga’s golden gun is “a symbol of virility – an extension of the male organ”. It is just one of many phallic weapons in the Bond saga. In Dr No, for instance, Bond reflects on his 15-year “marriage” to his Beretta handgun as he fondly recalls “pumping the cartridges out on to the bedspread in some hotel bedroom somewhere around the world”. Objectively speaking, guns comprise little more than highly engineered metal and springs, but Fleming invests them with an ­extraordinary degree of psychosexual significance.

Size matters in the Bond novels – a point made by a furious Paul Johnson in a review of Dr No for this paper in 1958 (“everything is giant in Dr No – insects, breasts, and gin-and-tonics”). One of the Bond stories’ biggest weapons is a rocket carrying an atomic warhead: the Moonraker, which gives its name to the third Bond novel, published in 1955. The most important thing about the Moonraker is that it is apparently British – a gift to a grateful nation from the plutocrat Sir Hugo Drax. And, like Bond’s Beretta, it is freighted with psychosexual significance. When Bond first lays eyes on it there is no doubt that this is an erotically charged symbol of destructive power. “One of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen,” Bond says, with a “rapt expression”:

Up through the centre of the shaft, which was about thirty feet wide, soared a pencil of glistening chromium [. . .] nothing marred the silken sheen of the fifty feet of polished chrome steel except the spidery fingers of two light gantries which stood out from the walls and clasped the waist of the rocket between thick pads of foam-rubber.

The guns in the Bond books can be seen as expressions of their bearer’s power – or, as with Scaramanga’s golden gun, compensation for a lack of virility. The Moonraker is equally symbolic, but on a far larger scale: an expression of a nation’s geopolitical power, or compensation for its impotence.

As what is known officially as Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent (“Trident” to everyone else) returns to the top of the political agenda, the cultural dimension of the debate will no doubt continue to be overlooked. Yet culture matters in politics, especially when the issue is a weapon. As the guns in the Bond novels remind us, weapons are not merely tools, they are also symbols. Trident is not just a system comprising nuclear warheads, missiles and four Vanguard-class submarines. Its symbolic meanings are, to a great extent, what this debate is about. Trident stands for Britain itself, and it does so for different people in different ways. Your opinion on whether to cancel or replace it depends to a great extent on what kind of country you think Britain is, or ought to be.

The Cold War British spy thriller is particularly topical because it developed in tandem with Britain’s nuclear programme through the 1950s and 1960s. Moonraker was published just weeks after Churchill’s government announced its intention to build an H-bomb in the 1955 defence white paper, and three years after Britain’s first atomic test on the Montebello Islands, Western Australia. These novels drew on technological reality in their plots concerning the theft of nuclear secrets or the proliferation of nuclear technology, but they influenced reality as well as reflected it, with stories of British power that helped create Britain’s image of itself in a postwar world.

The main theme of the genre is the decline of British power and how the country responded. Atomic or nuclear weapons serve this as symbols and plot devices. Len Deighton’s debut novel, The Ipcress File (1962), for instance, concerns a plan to brainwash British scientists to spy for the Soviet Union, and has as its centrepiece an American neutron-bomb test on a Pacific atoll, observed by a British double agent who is transmitting Allied secrets to an offshore Soviet submarine. The novel’s technical dialogue on nuclear technology, and its appendices providing a fictionalised account of the Soviet Union’s first atomic bomb test and a factual explanation of the neutron bomb, are in the book not merely for verisimilitude: Deighton’s British spies are observers or victims of the nuclear arms race between the US and the USSR, agents with remarkably little agency.

A more dour variation on the theme is John le Carré’s The Looking Glass War (1965), in which the prospect of obtaining information on Soviet nuclear missiles in East Germany provokes “the Department”, a failing military intelligence organisation, to try to regain its wartime glory with an intelligence coup. This hubris leads to tragedy as its amateurish operation unravels to disastrous effect, le Carré’s point being that military and economic might cannot be regained through nostalgic wish-fulfilment. These novels situate British decline in the context of superpower domination; their characters recall the technological and operational successes of the Second World War but seem unable to accept the contemporary reality of military and geopolitical decline. For Deighton and le Carré, Britain simply doesn’t matter as much as it used to, which is why, in le Carré’s later Smiley novels and Deighton’s Game, Set and Match trilogy (1983-85), the spymasters are so desperate to impress the Americans.

Fleming is usually seen as a reactionary, even blimpish writer – his England was “substantially right of centre”, Kingsley Amis remarked – and he signalled his own politics by making a trade unionist the ­villain of his first novel, Casino Royale (1953). So it might seem surprising that he was as concerned as his younger contemporaries Deighton and le Carré with British decline. The historian David Cannadine, for one, emphasises that although Fleming may have been aghast at certain aspects of postwar change such as the welfare state and unionisation (opinions that Bond makes no secret of sharing), he simply refused to believe that Britain was in decline, a refusal embodied in Bond’s very character.

Bond the man is more than the “anonymous, blunt instrument wielded by a ­government department” that Fleming described to the Manchester Guardian in 1958. He is an expression of the British state itself, demonstrating Britain’s toughness while besting its enemies – the Russian agents of SMERSH and, later, the international criminals and terrorists of SPECTRE. He is supported by a formidable apparatus of technological and logistical capability that mythologises British research and development, which had peaked during the Second World War (a point made more obviously in the film franchise when Fleming’s Armourer becomes the white-coated Q, heir to Barnes Wallis and the ingenious technicians of the Special Operations Executive). And, as Cannadine astutely observes, “this comforting, escapist theme of Britain’s continued pre-eminence” is most evident in Bond’s relationship with the United States. The Americans may have more money, but they cannot spy or fight anywhere near as well as Bond, as is made plain when the hapless Felix Leiter, Bond’s friend in the CIA, literally loses an arm and a leg to one of Mr Big’s sharks in Live and Let Die (1954).

Moonraker, however, exposes a more complex and sceptical side to Fleming’s Bond. It is significant that this emerges in a book that is explicitly about Englishness and the Bomb. The rocket is being built atop another symbol: the white cliffs of Dover, prompting some surprisingly lyrical passages on the beauty of South Foreland coast. And yet, though replete with emblems of English tradition and bursting with hatred of ugly, evil-minded foreigners, this novel has an unmistakable political subtext that undermines its apparent confidence in British power. Drax, it turns out, is a patriot – but a patriot of Nazi Germany, which he had served as an SS officer and plans to avenge with a missile that is pointing not, as everyone believes, at a test site in the North Sea, but at central London, the intended Ground Zero being a flat in Ebury Street, Belgravia (the location, incidentally, of Fleming’s own bachelor pad in the 1930s and 1940s). The missile has been designed and built by engineers from Wernher von Braun’s wartime rocket programme, and its atomic warhead has been generously donated by the Soviet Union, which is looking to bring Britain to its knees without having to go through the rigmarole of fighting a war.

The Moonraker, we are told repeatedly, will restore Britain to its rightful place at the global top table after its unfortunate postwar period of retrenchment and austerity. But the rocket is not British, except in being built on British soil, and the aim of the man controlling it is to destroy British power, not project it. The implication is that Britain is not only incapable of looking after its own defences, but also pathetically grateful for the favours bestowed on it. After the missile is fired, its trajectory diverted by Bond back to the original target (thereby fortuitously taking out a Soviet submarine carrying the fleeing Drax), the government decides to cover it all up and allow the public to continue believing that the Moonraker is a genuinely British atomic success.

One of the ironies of the Bond phenomenon is that by examining the myths and realities of British hard power, it became a chief instrument of British soft power. Of the first 18 novels to sell over a million copies in Britain, ten were Bond books, and Moonraker (by no means the most successful instalment of the saga) was approaching the two million mark 20 years after publication. The film franchise continues to offer Cannadine’s “comforting, escapist” image of Britain (the two most recent pictures, directed by Sam Mendes, are especially replete with British icons), but the novels are altogether more uncertain about Britain’s role in the world. Moonraker is full of anxiety that the myth of British power is nothing more than a myth, that Britain lacks the industrial and scientific wherewithal to return to greatness. It even conjures up an image of the apocalypse, reminding readers of the precariousness of those cherished British values and institutions, when the love interest, the improbably named Special Branch detective Gala Brand, imagines the terrible consequences of Drax’s plan:

The crowds in the streets. The Palace. The nursemaids in the park. The birds in the trees. The great bloom of flame a mile wide. And then the mushroom cloud. And nothing left. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.


Even though their plots ensure that apocalypse is averted, Cold War thrillers thus made their own contribution to forcing us to imagine the unimaginable, as did more mainstream post-apocalyptic novels such as William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954), Nevil Shute’s bestseller On the Beach (1957) and The Old Men at the Zoo (1961) by Angus Wilson. In Desmond Cory’s Shockwave, first published in 1963 as Hammerhead and featuring the Spanish-British agent Johnny Fedora (whose debut preceded Bond’s by two years), Madrid is saved from destruction by a nuclear bomb that the Soviet master spy Feramontov almost succeeds in delivering to its target. As he contemplates his objective, Feramontov muses that, in the “bomb-haunted world of the Sixties”, death in a nuclear fireball “might even come as a release, like the snapping of an overtautened string; and after the rains of death had flooded the Earth, those who survived in the sodden ruins might think of him as a benefactor of the race”.

But where the post-apocalyptic dystopias might be viewed as an argument for nuclear disarmament, later Cold War thrillers such as Cory’s usually accepted the fact of mutually assured destruction – and that British peace and prosperity were guaranteed by US nuclear firepower. Nowhere is this more apparent than Frederick Forsyth’s 1984 bestseller, The Fourth Protocol, which turns the Labour Party’s famously unilateralist 1983 election manifesto into a uniquely party-political espionage plot. In it, the general secretary of the Soviet Union conspires with the elderly Kim Philby to smuggle into Britain a small, self-assembly nuclear bomb that a KGB “illegal” will put together and ­detonate at a US air force base in East Anglia.

Unlike in Moonraker and Shockwave, however, the objective is not to provoke hostilities or prompt military capitulation, but to persuade the British public to vote Labour – by provoking horror and outrage at the risks of US nuclear weapons remaining on British soil. However, the new and moderate Labour leader, Neil Kinnock, will have a scant few hours in Downing Street, as a hard-left rival under Soviet control (such as a certain Ken Livingstone, whom Philby describes as “a nondescript, instantly forgettable little fellow with a nasal voice”) will at once usurp Kinnock and reinstate a policy of unilateral disarmament, leading to the removal of the US missiles.

The ideological force of Forsyth’s novel is clear enough: Britain is beset by enemies within and without, and must arm itself morally and politically against communism. But although this is an insistently, even tiresomely patriotic novel, its plot makes no attempt to conceal Britain’s relative military weakness and dependence on the United States, though disaster is averted by the combined brilliance of MI5, MI6 and the SAS. The Fourth Protocol thus becomes an allegory of this country’s world-leading “niche capabilities”, which maintain Britain’s prestige and relevance despite its declining military and economic might.

Today, the political argument remains on much the same terms as at the start of the Cold War. Whichever way you look at it, Trident symbolises Britain. To its supporters, it is symbolic of Britain’s talent for “punching above its weight”, and its responsibility to protect freedom and keep the global peace. To its opponents, it is an emblem of economic folly, militaristic excess, and a misunderstanding of contemporary strategic threats; it is an expression not of British confidence but of a misplaced machismo, a way for Britons to feel good about themselves that fails to address the real threats to the nation. One academic, Nick Ritchie of York University, argues that Britain’s nuclear policy discourse “is underpinned by powerful ideas about masculinity in international politics in which nuclear weapons are associated with ideas of virility, strength, autonomy and rationality”.

In 1945, shortly after Hiroshima became a byword for mass destruction, George ­Orwell predicted in his essay “You and the Atom Bomb” that nuclear weapons would bring about what he was the first to call a “cold war”. Because an atomic bomb “is a rare and costly object as difficult to produce as a battleship”, it could be produced at scale only by countries with vast industrial capacity; this would lead to the emergence of two or three superpowers, confronting each other in a “peace that is no peace”.

Orwell’s point about industrial capacity helps explain why Trident is totemic: it is proof that our industrial might has not entirely vanished. Alternatively, it can be seen as a consolation for industrial decline. This may be why the huge cost of the Successor programme – one of the main arguments wielded by Trident’s opponents against replacement – appears to be a source of pride for the government: the Strategic Defence and Security Review proclaims that, at £31bn, with a further £10bn for contingencies, Successor will be “one of the largest government investment programmes”.

Clearly, size matters today as much as it did when Fleming was writing. But Moonraker again helps us see that all is not what it seems. Just as the Moonraker is a German missile with a Soviet warhead, even if it is being built in Kent, so the missiles carried by the Vanguard-class submarines are, in fact, made in California, Britain having given up missile production in the 1960s. The Trident warheads are made in Berkshire – but by a privatised government agency part-owned by two American firms. Trident may be British, but only in the way Manchester United or a James Bond movie are British.

The Cold War spy thriller presciently suggests that true independence is an illusion. Britain may consume the most destructive weapons yet invented, but it can no longer produce them or deliver them without America’s industrial might. British power is interdependent, not independent: that is the Cold War thriller’s most politically prescient message.

Andrew Glazzard is a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute and the author of “Conrad’s Popular Fictions: Secret Histories and Sensational Novels” (Palgrave Macmillan)

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt