It was under Clement Attlee’s great postwar Labour government that the United Kingdom, in the early stages of what was to become the Cold War, conducted a successful atomic weapon test and established itself as a nuclear power.
The aftershock also caused a seismic rift in the Labour Party. Lifelong disarmament campaigner Michael Foot publicly fell out with fellow giant of the left, Aneurin Bevan, who famously compared unilateral nuclear disarmament to entering the international negotiating chamber without any bargaining chips. At the height of the Cold War, the early 1980s saw the SDP split and an electoral disaster under Foot. Labour’s response was to make a solid commitment to the nuclear deterrent, beginning under Neil Kinnock and continuing through New Labour and Ed Miliband.
That 1983 election did see the parliamentary arrival of backbench maverick Jeremy Corbyn, who became leader in 2015 thanks to a “man of principle” image typified by his anti-Trident activism. And yet, since the 2017 election campaign, Corbyn has been forced to bite his tongue and endorse the renewal of Trident, at the behest not only of the multilateralist majority of Labour MPs, but also of the trade unions who lobby to defend the thousands of jobs linked to the Trident submarines built in Barrow and stationed on the west coast of Scotland.
In fairness, the Bevanite and Footite camps only take different standpoints in pursuit of the same outcome—a world without weapons of mass destruction. Multilateralists can agree that nuclear weapons are, in their nature, abominations designed to kill countless innocent people. This was reflected in a 2016 BBC documentary that wargamed a catastrophic breakdown in diplomacy, leading to World War III and a nuclear strike from Russia. Despite the decimation of Britain, a panel of defence experts all voted down retaliating with Trident.
Multilateralists appeal to realism, echoing Bevan by framing Trident as an unlikely peacemaking tool. The problem is, in the post-Empire and post-Cold War age, they fail their own first principle. Pragmatically speaking, the UK and its European allies are already represented by NATO — which includes the United States with its massive nuclear stockpile — in negotiations with other nuclear powers like Russia and China. There is no need for an independent British deterrent.
Thinking outside of the NATO prism, a post-nuclear Britain could even offer itself as a host for disarmament talks. A retreat like Chequers would be a perfect venue for summits like those of Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un. This might make us far more relevant in international diplomacy than a handful of heavily-armed submarines.
However, my core objection to Trident does not arise out of a rejection of the arguments of multilateralists. It is my horror at the eye-watering sum of money, potentially up to £200 billion, to be spent on maintaining the programme over the coming decades. Proponents claim that this figure is exaggerated, but the cost will in any case run into the tens of billions.
It was said best by David Lammy, the far-from-Corbynite Tottenham MP: “I cannot vote to spend so much money renewing nuclear weaponry when the human cost of austerity is so grave.”
Austerity and inequality, however, are the not the only reasons Trident is such an outrageous waste of resources. We face an existential crisis far more pressing than any hypothetical nuclear threat: climate change. According to opinion polling, a narrow majority of voters support renewing Trident, but a much larger proportion want an urgent response to the climate emergency. They should be offered a choice.
To avert a global disaster, Britain—along with the rest of the industrialised world—must implement a strategy to drastically cut carbon emissions. As no expense can be spared, there is a case for ring-fencing all the savings from scrapping Trident to accomplish this goal.
Just imagine what a Green New Deal could accomplish with the countless billions earmarked for Trident at its disposal. Surely all of the scientific expertise and skilled workers dedicated to nuclear weaponry would be far better employed in ambitious renewable energy and public transport projects. With rewilding we can engineer diverse and splendid ecosystems throughout the land.
In terms of national defence, we can defer to ex-generals who in fact agree with Corbyn, viewing Trident as obsolete and preferring to rebuild conventional armed forces depleted since 2010. More focus is also needed on dynamic security threats—such as cyberattacks and terrorist plots—that pose a significant danger to public safety and cannot be targeted with ballistic missiles.
Trident vanishing overnight would make little difference to the UK’s world standing, other than making us a moral exemplar in abandoning nuclear weapons. But we would, at least, be better placed to preserve civilisation instead of facilitating its ruin.