The Moral Case For Trident

Wednesday, March 11th, 2015


In response to the recent Church of England letter calling for trident to be re-examined, Peter Cannon argues that there is nothing ethical or moral about gambling with our security and putting future generations at risk.

The recent pastoral letter by Church of England bishops offering guidance for the general election (‘Who is my neighbour?’) argued that “Shifts in the global strategic realities mean that the traditional arguments for nuclear deterrence need re-examining” but “such is the talismanic power of nuclear weaponry that few politicians seem willing to trust the electorate with a real debate about the military capacity we need in the world of today”.

Anti-Trident activists welcomed the Church of England taking a ‘moral stance’ and questioning Trident, albeit in the slightly woolly form of calling for a ‘re-examination’ and a ‘real debate’. But it is misleading of the bishops to give church congregations the impression that this issue has not been re-examined or debated. Nuclear deterrence and the renewal of the Trident system in particular has been extensively and publicly debated, not least in Parliament in the run up to the 2007 vote to authorise the ‘Initial Gate’ decision to begin designing and planning the replacement system. The subsequent process of renewing Trident does not lack democratic legitimacy, having been included in both the Conservative and Labour Party manifestos in 2010 and then agreed as part of the Coalition Programme for Government.

When people call for a ‘real debate’ on Trident, they usually mean a debate that ends with the result they want: the scrapping of the nuclear deterrent. Some are quick to assume that the anti-nuclear position is by default the ‘moral’ one and certainly the Christian one.

But I would not hesitate to argue that there is a far stronger moral and Christian case for keeping the UK’s independent nuclear deterrent than for abandoning it.

As the bishops recognise in their letter “Military intervention by states such as Britain is not always wrong.” There is such a thing as a just war.

For an individual to turn the other cheek when attacked rather than to retaliate is noble. But turning someone else’s cheek for them if they are attacked is not, particularly if they are someone you are supposed to be caring for. The first duty of a government is to protect its citizens. That is precisely what Trident does. It is not designed as a system to launch aggression against other countries. It is a deterrent, as any potential aggressor knows that if they were to launch a nuclear attack against the UK, the UK would definitely be able to launch an equally devastating nuclear attack against them.

The most important moral question is not the possession of the weapons, but what they are going to be used for. It is clear that the UK has not used and will not use them to attack other countries. They are there to deter potential attacks.

People who complain that Trident will ‘never be used’ are missing the point – it is being used all the time, by providing this continuous coverage, and by the fact that any potential enemy knows that it provides continuous coverage.  The fact that there is always at least one nuclear-armed submarine on patrol and that its location is unknown is why the Lib Dem-led Cabinet Office study into ‘alternatives to Trident’ concluded that there were no effective alternatives. There is no cheaper alternative deterrent, as any deterrent that was not continuous would leave windows of opportunity for an aggressor and as a deterrent which was land-based would be vulnerable to a pre-emptive strike.

It is often argued that there are no countries which would realistically want to launch a nuclear attack against the UK. But there is no way of predicting future threats. Very few major conflicts which we have faced have been predicted in advance. And it is not just a nuclear attack which Trident defends us against, but also nuclear blackmail. If we abandon Trident, we are almost certainly abandoning nuclear deterrence forever. We would be acting as if we knew which future threats we will and will not face. We simply do not.

There is nothing moral about wilfully taking such a risk with our people’s future, and with the security of not just this but future generations. For any government to choose not to invest in renewing a system that provides the people of this country with their last line of defence against the most serious threat possible would be a dereliction of its duty of protection.

Whatever one’s views of nuclear weapons themselves, the fact we must face is that they cannot now be un-invented. Nuclear weapons exist and they are here to stay. In a world where nuclear weapons do exist, are held by countries such as Russia, China and Pakistan, have been acquired by North Korea and may one day be acquired by Iran, is it really credible to argue that the UK giving up its nuclear weapons would make either our own country or the world any safer? It is difficult to see how the bishops or anyone else can seriously believe this. In a world in which nuclear weapons do exist, their possession by countries such as the UK makes the aggressive use of nuclear weapons less likely, not more likely. A world in which a rogue regime could acquire a nuclear weapon after other countries had disarmed, and then either launch an attack without fear of reprisal or hold the rest of the world to ransom, would not be a safer one.

We need to remember that the UK’s nuclear deterrent does not just protect our own people. It is also recognised in NATO’s strategic concept as contributing towards the nuclear defence of the NATO alliance, along with the nuclear weapons of the USA and France. There is nothing moral or Christian about giving up on contributing to the security of our allies, and leaving it to other countries to spend the money and do the work instead, while still expecting to benefit from their support and protection.

Giving up Trident would not just be a risk to our security due to the loss of the nuclear deterrent, but also because it would show to our allies and to our enemies that the UK was no longer serious about its own defence or about contributing to international security and stability. The UK would be giving up global relevance and its position as a leading military power. We would be diminishing ourselves in the world. I firmly believe that the UK is a force for good and a net contributor to global prosperity and security. Again, it is difficult to argue that a diminished and declining UK would in any way be beneficial to global security or, as the bishops put it, “any international sense of shared community”. If the UK, one of the leading Western democracies, gives up its nuclear deterrent and retreats from its former role, it is most unlikely that the void is going to be filled by nicer, more democratic countries who are going to do a better job contributing to world peace.

One of the most dishonest arguments against Trident, not put forward by the bishops but regularly deployed by the SNP, is that the cost is unjustified.Figures such as “£100 billion” are often thrown around.  Such numbers are only arrived at by taking the actual cost of building and introducing the new system (around £20billion) and adding on the running costs for decades, and then rounding up.

The idea that not replacing Trident would suddenly free up billions of pounds to spend on ‘better’ things is a fantasy – for one thing, dismantling and decommissioning Trident and shutting down Faslane would not be inexpensive. The proposition that the savings from Trident would be reallocated to other parts of the defence budget is even more fantastic. Cost is used as a convenient argument by those who would be opposed to Trident whatever the circumstances.

To put the £20billion cost of replacing Trident in perspective, the Olympics – which lasted a few weeks – cost the UK around £9billion. The annual international aid budget is over £11billion. Spending £20billion over a period of years to build a new system which will provide the UK with security for decades is therefore very good value for money. In contrast, putting the security of future generations at risk and letting down our allies for the sake of saving this money would not be a morally justified or Christian thing to do.

Those of us who support the renewal of Trident should not cede the moral high ground to those calling for disarmament. There is nothing moral about downgrading the UK as a global power and leaving us unable to defend ourselves and our allies from rogue aspiring nuclear states like North Korea and Iran. Disarming and weakening democratic states like the UK and leaving the field open for aggressive, volatile and undemocratic regimes will do nothing for world peace, progress or the good of humanity. To claim, as some do, that Britain’s nuclear deterrent makes the world less safe is frankly an insult and an indication of a profound lack of faith in our own people and civilisation. There is nothing ethical about gambling with our security and putting future generations at risk in order to satisfy the demands of anti-Western and anti-war gesture politics or to save money. There is nothing moral about giving up on our own protection and leaving it to others.

As a Christian, I have no hesitation in saying that it is morally right to continue to invest in a system that provides the ultimate defence for our people against the gravest threat, to invest in the security of future generations, to contribute to the nuclear security of our NATO allies, to shoulder our share of the burden of international security and to demonstrate that we are serious about continuing to play a global role. The moral and Christian case for renewing Trident is far stronger than the case for scrapping it. Protecting people from nuclear attack or nuclear blackmail is a moral cause, and for any British government not to renew Trident would be a moral failing.

Peter Cannon is a former parliamentary researcher and local councillor in Dartford, Kent

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