Article by Michael Portillo on Gordon Brown’s nuclear deterrent policy for The Sunday Times, 25 June 2006.

“Subtle as an air raid” might be a good way to describe the galumphing political semaphores now emanating from Gordon Brown. He hopes that they will re-shape our ideas about him before he assumes the premiership. Last week his arms were flapping vigorously to signal that despite being thought a figure of the left, he can be relied upon to renew Britain’s nuclear deterrent.

But if that is his reasoning, the chancellor is thinking in oldspeak. Being for or against the renewal of Britain’s deterrent now has nothing to do with right and left as it once did. In a depressing way, which is all too common in British politics, Brown’s policy for the future does not reflect fresh or even modern ideas about the issue. It is rather a reaction to his party’s past.

Labour has in its time suffered appalling anguish over nuclear weapons. The party’s Christian socialists found the idea of mass human destruction utterly repugnant and believed that Labour had a duty to renounce Britain’s deterrent. Some campaigners were utopian pacifists, others were inspired by anti-Americanism, and a few were communist sympathizers, at a time when British missiles were targeted against the Soviet Union.

Even so, it has fallen to Labour in office to take critical decisions that made Britain a nuclear power and kept it so. It was a Labour foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin, who first memorably concluded that the bomb needed to have a “Union Jack” on it, and Labour’s negotiations with America led to Britain’s first atomic test in 1952.

A recurring theme in the party’s history is that those who become its leaders renounce their earlier commitment to disarmament. Nye Bevan, a founder of Tribune magazine which led the anti-nuclear campaign, went on to be shadow foreign secretary and then urged the 1957 Labour conference to reject a unilateralist motion, because it would “send a British Foreign Minister… naked into the conference-chamber”.

The Labour manifesto for the 1964 election remarked that the Polaris submarine-launched deterrent “will not be independent and it will not be British and it will not deter.” None the less Harold Wilson, who won that election for Labour, oversaw the system’s introduction.

Tony Blair’s campaign leaflet in his unsuccessful attempt to win Beaconsfield in the 1982 election reminded voters that “Labour is the only party pledged to end the nuclear madness” and Brown told parliament two years later that the Trident system, which replaced Polaris, was “unacceptably expensive, economically wasteful and militarily unsound.”

One Labour leader, Michael Foot, did remain committed to unilateral disarmament even after he had climbed the greasy pole. His policy contributed substantially to Labour’s slaughter in the 1983 general election. His successor, Neil Kinnock, learned the lesson and ditched Foot’s policy and maybe his own principles as well.

The youthful Blair was wrong. Mutually assured destruction (MAD) was frightening but not insane. In the days when the Soviet Union aspired to dominate the world and was equipped to destroy the West’s major cities, only the near-guarantee that it too would be obliterated provided us with security.

Furthermore, in case the Russians might think that they could devastate European capitals (as part of an overland assault on Western Europe) without luring America into a nuclear exchange, Britain had to have its own weapons system. That complicated the calculation for the Russians and, hidden beneath the ocean on a submarine, the British deterrent could not be eliminated in a first strike. Brown was wrong too about the cost of deterrence. Britain could buy nuclear security for just a small part of the defence budget.

But two decades later we live in a different world and the arguments ought to have changed. We now face no threat from the Soviet Union. The nuclear weapons states that we might fear such as North Korea, China and in the future Iran, have much less developed systems than the Russians did. Unlike the Soviet Union they do not have tank divisions in Germany and
Czechoslovakia ready to race towards Frankfurt and Vienna. It is not easy for them to blackmail us, still less attack us.

If somehow they could threaten us, it is hard to see how Britain’s own weapons could successfully deter them. As Harold Wilson observed after he had left Downing Street: “I never believed that we had a really independent deterrent.” Britain relies for its technology on the United States, and it is inconceivable that we could use our weapons without American permission. That being so, Britain’s “independent” deterrent becomes ineffective.

Our enemies know too that democracies could only use nuclear weapons if they have come under nuclear attack. Even when Britain has felt that its vital national interests were threatened it could not even contemplate a nuclear response. So Colonel Nasser of Egypt did not hesitate to nationalize the Suez Canal, nor did Argentina’s General Galtieri think twice about invading the Falkland Islands.

Twenty years ago the Soviets might have doubted whether the Americans would really risk the destruction of their country just to save Europe. But the calculation for others today would be quite different. America has spent those two decades working on systems that intercept hostile missiles. If the US needs to destroy an enemy (perhaps in response to an attack on an ally) it can probably do so at no risk to its homeland. So whilst Britain’s independent deterrent now appears ineffective, the American deterrent works even better than before. Blair’s key insight – which probably led him into the Iraq war – is that we rely on America for our security now as much as ever, if not more so.

It is true that the world will have changed again by the time that the Trident system needs to be replaced or upgraded in almost twenty years’ time. Who knows what the global situation may be by then? But no matter how much the scene alters, the US will still hold the key to the British system, because the missile design is theirs.

Those who urge a policy re-think now are not necessarily of the left or pacifist or idealist. The right can forcefully argue that Britain’s nuclear deterrent will never be used and will not deter. The money that Brown intends to spend on renewal could be diverted instead to aircraft carriers, cruise missiles and unmanned aircraft, all of which have awesome destructive power and almost certainly will get used.

It is to be hoped that the Conservatives are thinking the issue through. For that matter a different US administration might also believe that Britain would be a more useful ally if it spent less on Trident but could unleash more explosive and fly more missions in the next regional war than it did against Iraq.

Some argue that having the bomb gives Britain global clout. Well, it certainly has not made us more influential in Europe than Germany which is nuclear-free. If Britain and France owe their permanent seats on the UN Security Council to having the bomb then we should prepare to admit India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea. If it is true that nuclear weapons buy influence in world affairs, then we cannot be surprised that Iran is racing to share in it.

Under Article VI of the Non-Proliferation Treaty each signatory “undertakes to pursue negotiations…. relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race… and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty…on complete disarmament”. The Treaty is often quoted against Iran, but Britain evidently ignores the obligations that apply to those who have nuclear weapons already.

A year ago I wrote here that the postwar case for Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was outdated. I am not sure whether to take myself seriously, by which I mean that if I were still a minister I do not know whether I would argue for Britain to forgo updating Trident. As I know from having tried both, it is easier to be a pundit than a politician. In government, the forces of inertia are strong. Because the future is unknowable, the argument “better safe than sorry” normally carries the day.

But if this government is to argue for renewing Trident it cannot simply restate a doctrine of deterrence that was relevant only in a bygone era. Still less should Brown decide on such an important policy merely because he fears Labour repeating its fate under Michael Foot. In today’s world we need new doctrines because the enemies that we must deter – whether terrorists or rogue states – are different from the past. Without new thinking the government may waste our money, and leave Britain unsafe.