Britain and the nuclear ‘option’

Jun 16, 2024
The nuclear warheads of a ballistic missile are aimed upwards for a nuclear strike. army weapons. the threat of a weapon. Image: iStock/Gerasimov174

If the Tories’ plan for young people to serve in national service is not bizarre enough, we now find that the Labour Party will use nuclear weapons should they deem it necessary. The ideas raised by possession of nuclear arms are just as contradictory now as they have been throughout the nuclear age. They demonstrate the stupidity of the nuclear arms race very succinctly.

Deputy Labour Leader Angela Rayner seems to personify some of those contradictions. While opposed to nuclear weapons in general she accepts that Labour would use the Trident protocols responsibly. Labour Leader Sir Keir Starmer says that security is paramount and that he would use nuclear weapons in ‘defence’ of Britain. It is unlikely that Rayner’s apparent act of disloyalty will cause her major problems. Her Leader however, must handle all the contradictions that come with possession of nuclear arms.

The very term ‘use’ is paradoxical. Proponents of nuclear armaments believe that this is the only way to deter other nuclear armed states that otherwise might threaten Britain. If this is the case then clearly nuclear weapons are used every day. Firing them is a logical extension of possession.

Unfortunately, advocates of nuclear arms who really believe that they somehow bring about nuclear peace are stuck with an uncomfortable outcome. If you believe this, then the sooner all states are nuclear armed the better. Rather than obstruct proliferation, these proponents should assist other states to acquire them.

Following the invasion of Ukraine, Mr Putin says that the Russian constitution specifies the circumstances in which such weapons can be deployed: threats to ‘sovereignty’ or ‘territorial integrity’. These rules seem terribly vague. Exactly when would Russia be threatened? The option is clearly in the hands – and mind – of the President.

Starmer’s use of the term ‘defence’ is similarly problematic. Whatever else can be said about nuclear missiles, strategic or tactical, they obviously exist for one reason and that is to attack. During the 1980s, the USA under Reagan in particular, spoke of a nuclear shield to counter attack weapons. The Strategic Defence Initiative was criticised for threatening to take the nuclear arms race into outer space and it was also of dubious help in non-proliferation because it left the Eastern bloc needing more weapons to penetrate the ‘defences’. Even for its supporters, deterrence does not work if one side has no need to fear the other. Nuclear weapons are not a defensive weapon. They target the cities of the enemy.

Herein lies another contradiction. Just as Russia rattles the sabre to project its foreign policy, Britain seems unclear what ‘defence’ issues are important. Once, the military was recruited to serve the interests of the East India Company. Is defence of trade routes and commercial interests the kind of issue Starmer envisages using nuclear weapons to ‘defend’? Talk of using nuclear weapons to fight a war is the same MADness it always was. Has Starmer calculated the environmental threat from radiation as well as the destruction which would result from such a deployment? This seems unlikely but ghoulish if he has made the calculations and still supports use of nuclear weapons.

Again here in Australia, we have a government keen on selling nuclear powered submarines to the public. Aukus makes Australian Labor sound every bit as MAD as British Labour. As part of Aukus, the USA will station nuclear arms here. In the 1980s New Zealand Labor Prime Minister David Lange had the courage to demand the USA not send nuclear armed vessels to NZ ports. As a result, the Anzus pact was ended. What a pity the current Australian government lacks the courage to ask the US to reveal any nuclear weapons it plans to station here.

And where Britain is concerned, remember that in the 1950s, it took Australia for granted as a testing ground for nuclear weapons. Maralinga might have been the most infamous testing site but a Royal Commission heard evidence about some 12 tests across three sites. Not only was Australian sovereignty disregarded, but so too were Indigenous rights and lives.

Britain may have felt obliged to ‘clean up’ somewhat after their nuclear tests, but there is little evidence they have cleaned up their attitudes. The Australian prime minister of the day felt no need to consult his cabinet let alone parliament about the decision to allow British tests in Australia. Prime Minister Albanese shows the same reluctance to consult. Australia is implicated in the nuclear world by stealth.

A nuclear standoff is in itself bad enough. A nuclear war is horrible to contemplate. No doubt our politicians have their excuses ready, just as they try to rationalise their failure to prevent the slaughter of thousands of Palestinian children in Gaza. But how dare anyone – in Britain or the USA or Australia – try to justify such a fate for the world and its people, or such a tense future for our children as they try to prevent the ultimate catastrophe?

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