Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Policy v politics

The decision over the renewal of Trident is one of those areas where politics trumps sensible policy making. This has always been the case. The politics of nuclear deterrence is dominated by political symbolism rather than strategic thinking.

Looking back to the Cold War, nuclear deterrence was a restraint. The consequences of adventurism were too devastating to risk a full-scale confrontation. But there is a flaw in the theory of deterrence. A deterrent has to be credible if it is to deter. To be credible it must be useable and ready to be used. The old theory of mutually assured destruction (MAD) is still popularly held, but was never credible. The idea that you would respond to an attack by destroying human civilisation - yours and the aggressors - is genuinely mad. That is why the main nuclear strategy was a war fighting one based on a ladder of escalation up to a first strike to take out the other side's own nuclear weapons before they can use them. It is a credible deterrent, but one with huge risks. If that primary deterrence fails, then the only way a war can be won is to strike first. The first level of deterrence encourages restraint, the second escalation. This was always the concern of more thoughtful critics of nuclear weapons. So there is a case for arms control, non-proliferation and disarmament. It isn't the one we normally hear though. Even so, because of nuclear proliferation, there still is a case for a deterrent based on a limited retaliatory capacity. We hear that argument a lot more.

But what about Britain's independent nuclear deterrent? It isn't fully independent and its military value is limited. Within the army, in particular, voices have been raised about whether the cost would be better spent on conventional forces. Further afield, there is another line that says that as we are under the NATO nuclear umbrella, the money would be better spent elsewhere and that employment would be better served by investment in non-military manufacturing. There is a real argument for a rethink. The problem is that this argument is buried under political symbolism. After all, British nuclear arms were always a political rather than a military weapon.

They were developed by the post-war Labour government primarily to keep British influence with the United States, but were opposed by the left. Since then, British nuclear weapons have become a cause, rather than a policy. And that cause has been a constant source of division, from Bevan's 1957 conversion to being a supporter of Britain's nuclear status, through 1980s unilateralism and up to today's split over Trident renewal.

The politicisation of nuclear weapons has prevented a rational discussion of policy. This was one area that would benefit from bi-partisanship. But the Conservatives have a vested interest in being the party of nuclear defence. They can paint a non-nuclear policy as both weak and extremist at the same time. There is no enthusiasm amongst the electorate for nuclear disarmament, it is a vote loser, and so the struggle in the Labour Party is over a symbol of both left/right control and electability. Military policy is merely an afterthought.

Today's Trident debate is the same. Trident renewal is opposed by the left, supported by the right and by the unions representing defence workers. The Conservatives sit back and watch gleefully. Once again, politics has prevailed.

Mind you, Corbyn has come up with a compromise - submarines on patrol with missiles without warheads. Another great idea. It makes no military sense, no economic sense and will be electorally unpopular. Again, the suggestion is political. This time it's the machine politics of the pork barrel - throwing an expensive and useless project at key supporters to appease them. Or perhaps Colin Talbot's more surreal explanation is the best one. Whatever, my head is in my hands once more.


George S said...

Beyond the influence with the US there is the political argument that it allows Britain 'a seat at the table' ie among the permanent five at the UN Security Council. Not that that's a commonly agreed argument. http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200506/cmselect/cmdfence/986/98606.htm

The Plump said...

Indeed, George, and that also asks questions bout the nature and significance of Britain's role in international affairs. I'm not sure that question is being asked much, just assumed.