A punishing budget: but the government prepares to spend £100bn on nuclear weapons

Nuclear weapons provide the illusion of security not the reality.

The government says we have to tighten our belts and make massive cuts, but we are actually on the verge of spending our way to disaster. That is exactly what committing £100 billion to building and running a replacement for the Trident nuclear weapons system – as our Government intends – would be: a disaster for all those whose real human needs are not going to be met; those who are now suffering from the harsh effects of cuts to pensions, education, health, public travel provision and even our prison system.

It is not as if "our" nuclear weapons are even really ours. We depend on the United States for the technology, for the missiles, for the guidance systems and even the spare parts. Harold Wilson once said that we have a ‘Moss Bros’ deterrent – just like a suit which we borrow and pretend is ours.

But even if they were really ours, what are they supposed to be for? What is the point of trying to stay in the nuclear weapons game? Field Marshall Lord Bramall, who, as one time head of our armed forces, ought to know, has said: ‘Nuclear weapons have shown themselves to be completely useless as a deterrent to the threats and scale of violence we currently face, particularly international terrorism…’

He is right. The Cold War is long over. The threats we face today are real but none of them can be dealt with by nuclear weapons. Terrorists? Civil Wars? Population movements as a result of climate change? Food and water shortages? Civil unrest leading to riots? Outbreaks of disease? As a matter of history, nuclear weapons – which were supposed to provide ultimate security – did not save the United States from humiliating defeat in Vietnam. They did not stop the Argentinians attacking the Falklands. And they did not help the Soviets in Afghanistan.

Nuclear weapons provide the illusion of security not the reality. Worse, they actually increase the whole world’s insecurity. We all know that every machine operated by humans eventually goes wrong. We are rarely told about the number of nuclear weapon accidents. As recently as 2009, two nuclear armed submarines – one British and one French – collided nearly head-on in the Atlantic. The oceans are littered with up to 20 nuclear submarines as a result of accidents, some with their weapons still on board. The United States once dropped hydrogen bombs in the sea and on the shore of Spain and had to spend fortunes digging up and removing the contaminated soil.

Worst of all are the human technical errors which have several times taken the world to the very edge of disaster. Those who doubt such a claim should read the story of Colonel Petrov who, in 1983, at a time of high East-West tension, "saw" missiles coming from the West to the East. He should have reported this to the Kremlin but, against orders, did not do so, fearful of the consequences. How wise. What he was seeing turned out to be a rare atmospheric condition not missile traces. Had he told the Kremlin that the Soviet Union was under nuclear attack their response might have been catastrophic. We could have been into World War III – a war of no winners.

From a purely British point of view it makes no sense to spend these billions of pounds on what is no more than nationalistic vanity – as any replacement of Trident would be. That’s the message I will be taking to Aldermaston on 1 April and across the country in my Scrap Trident Tour over the following weeks. But this is not just a British issue, it is a global one. We need to get rid of all nuclear weapons not just our own.

When we signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1968 we promised exactly that. And in 1996, the International Court of Justice said that there is an obligation to work towards the elimination of all nuclear weapons and ‘bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspects…’ At the NPT Review Conference in 2000, Britain repeated this commitment.

A perfectly sensible draft nuclear weapons abolition convention, outlining all the steps needed on the way to global elimination, already exists, but Britain refuses to support it. To make sure, by replacing Trident, that we have nuclear weapons for another 40 years is to tell the rest of the world that we do not believe in global abolition. What an incitement to non-nuclear weapons states to take our road.

We humans are perfectly capable of dealing with global problems. Thanks to the World Health Organization smallpox is no longer a threat. We have a treaty, largely observed, against chemical weapons. There is an international agreement on landmines. So too could there be on nuclear weapons if Britain took a positive part.

A final thought. Do we really want to go on indefinitely with a style of "security" based on a willingness to slaughter hundreds of thousands of innocent people elsewhere on the globe if by mistake, accident or miscalculation something goes wrong.

Bruce Kent is a peace activist and long-time campaigner for CND. More details about his "Scrap Trident Tour" can be found here

 

HMS Victorious at HM Naval Base Clyde, Scotland. Photograph: Getty Images

Bruce Kent is a peace activist and long-time campaigner for CND. More details about his "Scrap Trident Tour" can be found here.

 

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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