“Unacceptably expensive, economically wasteful and militarily unsound.” So Gordon Brown described the Trident missile system a decade after ending his term as rector of Edinburgh University. He may be happy to hear, then, that the Student Association of his alma mater voted earlier this month to oppose renewal of the Trident nuclear programme, and to fund free education instead. Or perhaps not, since Brown has now committed himself to “retaining Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent” in the Westminster debate on Trident in March. Edinburgh students and the NUS disagree. It isn’t hard to see why.
The debate at Edinburgh Student Association’s general meeting began with a description of the nuclear weapons system that Gordon Brown wants to retain. Trident is made up of four submarines and the forty-eight warheads that fly from each. When you pay for something, you have at least some intent to use it. What would using Trident mean? Each warhead is eight times more powerful than that used on Hiroshima. So Trident offers the equivalent of 1,536 Hiroshimas; if ever there were masses to be destroyed, this is the weapon to do it. That is, of course, if Britain ever decided to use Trident. And if Britain does not intend to use Trident there seems little point in renewing it.
Some students argued that we need Trident in order not to use it; a deterrent force to support our “national security”. Yet Britain, as a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, is committed to the principle of reducing nuclear stockpiles. Trident renewal spits, rather than merely flies, in the face of that policy. The NPT denies the non-nuclear states the right to nuclear weapons provided that the nuclear states begin disarmament “at an early date”. Trident renewal would give Britain nuclear weapons until 2050, almost a century after the NPT was signed.
But, said the proponents of Trident renewal, nuclear weapons are needed to deter Iran. President Ahmadinejad might make the same point about Britain. To believe otherwise is to think that Britain is a uniquely peaceful force in world affairs – after the invasion or attack on four sovereign nations in 10 years this is a difficult illusion in which to persist. People who can believe the war in Iraq was a good idea really should not have access to thermo-nuclear destruction.
The most telling argument against Trident for Edinburgh students was its enormous cost. These will be, according to CND, £25 billion over the lifetime of the system. Other estimates add up to as much as £76 billion. Even arts students can do the sums here – the government is telling us to pay fees because there is not enough money for higher education, yet at the same spending billions on a fully funded mass destruction system free at the point of misuse.
As we approach the Parliamentary debate on Trident renewal, I hope that more student unions will follow Edinburgh’s example – and perhaps remind Gordon Brown of the principles he once held.