Nuclear Weapons as Identity Politics

The revelation that the test of the United Kingdom's nuclear capacity in the summer of 2016 resulted in a missile that veered off course has put pressure on the Conservative government. In obscuring the issues with this test (and indeed the existence of the test itself), the government allowed an uninformed Parliament to pass the 40 Billion GBP renewal of the Trident system. Given the slim public support for renewal at the time - 51% in an Independent poll - this information may have shifted the debate as thus Trident's renewal. But as with many political issues the question of who knew and when is emerging as the crucial point of contention.

That this has become an argument about procedure - who should inform Parliament and/or the Public of the outcome of these tests and when - is hardly surprising given the addiction of the UK's political elites to Trident. Trident was initiated during the Cold War, when the UK believed the most direct threat to its national security was a Soviet Union-led Warsaw Pact. Since 1980 a lot has changed. But the consensus in Parliament that the UK needs a nuclear deterrent is not one of them. Despite the narrow lead in public support for Trident's renewal, the measure passed in the House of Commons with a majority of 355 with the Labour Party split down the middle. Corbyn's refusal to support the renewal saw his opposition to the rump of his own party labeled as "unprecedented... reckless, juvenile, narcissistic irresponsibility" by a Labour MP (Jamie Reed, who resigned last month to take a job in the nuclear industry, triggering a by-election in a marginal seat - I guess there is enough narcissistic irresponsibility to go around). Despite evidence that public support for nuclear weapons in the UK is weak, "serious" politicians overwhelming push for their continued existence. Indeed Corbyn's questioning of the UK nuclear deterrent has seen him labeled a danger to national security.

Given that we are no longer fighting the Cold War why is it heretical to question Trident? I would suggest that a recent suggestion that we think of Brexit in terms of identity politics is a useful lens here. The split of the Labour Party and the Conservative Party's lockstep love of the Bomb have echoes of the divisions that we see over Brexit. To be sure, the Conservative Party is more divided over Brexit than Trident, but I'd argue that the latter divide masks a general support for the view that Britain has global clout. (The question for Conservatives is whether the UK leads in Europe or outside it). The unquestioned support for Trident is born of a consensus that the UK is amongst the nations that need to have a nuclear capacity i.e. that the UK has a leadership role in the world. Despite the evidence that the UK is no longer a global power, it remains an article of faith amongst sections of the UK public and the establishment parties that it remains so - or at least that it retains some special claim to be a leader in the community of nations. Trident is the enactment of this belief, and like its twin Brexit, retains the strongest support amongst conservative old men. It is therefore not surprising that Prime Minister May has has tied Brexit to the projection of British naval power and a faux-patriotism of colours.

Under this framework, the failure of Trident to actually work, the oppressive cost of the program, and the lack of an even hypothetical situation in which Trident would be deployed have little bearing on the rabid condemnation of its critics. To question Trident is to question Great Britain. (And it is therefore not surprising that it is the parties of the Celtic fringe that are most critical of Trident - as with Brexit - and most easily dismissed from the debate). To have an open discussion about the future of British nuclear weapons would be to concede of a future in which the UK no longer has them. And to do that would be an admission that the UK is just one nation amongst others. 40 Billion GBP is apparently a price worth paying to avoid that cognitive reckoning. As with Brexit, we as a nation would rather continue an economically draining folly than have a frank discussion about the reality of the UK's place in the world. 

In truth, the debate around Trident is one of real reckless irresponsibility. But the reckless irresponsibility is the refusal to openly and thoroughly discuss the future of Trident and the UK's role in the global order more generally. Instead we continue pursuing a potentially flawed independent nuclear deterrent that let's us believe the UK is a global power. And at a cost of 40 Billion GBP we are losing out in myriad other ways. The tragedy of it is, like Brexit, that in enacting this identity the UK is only hastening its global irrelevance.