Joyce McMillan: Nuance needed in debate on Trident

The argument over Britain’s nuclear weapons is too important to be reduced to the hurling of cheap insults, writes Joyce McMillan

A young anti-Trident protester at a demo in Glasgow. Picture: John Devlin

FOUR weeks until Britain goes to the polls, and the knives are out in the 2015 General Election campaign. Forty-odd years ago at St Andrews University, the now Secretary of State for Defence, Michael Fallon, always seemed a genial and sunny youth, slightly out of place among the shrill Tory crowd who milled around in university gowns, plotting the downfall of the welfare state.

Yesterday, though, in the pages of the Times, he made a spectacular verbal attack on the Labour leader Ed Miliband, describing him as the man who was prepared to stab his own brother in the back to win the Labour leadership and who was now prepared to “stab Britain in the back” by striking a deal with the anti-Trident SNP, in order to become prime minister.

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There are, of course, undercurrents to this accusation, some murky, others intriguing. Fallon’s words had barely become public before some were pointing out the unpleasant history of such accusations of treachery directed against politicians of Jewish background. As for Ed Miliband’s reasons for running against his elder brother David – well, he may have been motivated by blind ambition; but he may also have believed, like many others in the Labour movement, that his brother was just too right-wing to present a serious alternative to the Tories.

Subtexts apart, though, it’s easy enough to understand the vehemence of Fallon’s attack. He believes in the necessity of Britain’s nuclear deterrent and – to judge by his cry that “Britain does not pay ransom” – sees the likely increased SNP presence at Westminster as something akin to a hostage-taking by a hostile group. And in any case, it’s not only those on the Right of British politics who feel a visceral fear and reluctance at the thought of abandoning Britain’s nuclear deterrent.

The balance of power, luck and co-operation that has delivered 70 years of peace in western Europe is at best complex, and at worst downright mysterious; and the recent collapse of post-1990 assumptions about the end of the Cold War, combined with the general continuing threat of nuclear proliferation, certainly makes the world seem a much more dangerous and unpredictable place than it was 15 years ago.

If some hesitation is understandable, though, what is not acceptable, in a democracy, is Fallon’s clear implication that only a person bent on harming the people of these islands would even seek to open up discussion about the future of Trident. As many Tory MPs concede in private, it is often increasingly difficult to see the relevance of a submarine-based nuclear missile system to the real defence and security issues Britain now faces. There was no talk of “nuking” Moscow when Russia walked into Crimea and east Ukraine; my guess is that there would be no such talk even if there was a similar assault on Latvia, the most vulnerable of the Baltic states.

Nuclear missiles cannot be used or even threatened against insurgent enemies like Islamic State and al-Qaeda, for fear of making desperate situations far worse. Indeed, everyone who supports the continued holding of these weapons should be fully aware that their very existence represents a breach of international law, since any detonation of an intercontinental nuclear missile, in the populated world, would inevitably kill or profoundly harm hundreds of thousands of completely innocent civilians.

And beyond these strategic and ethical arguments, there is the brute fact that the much-debated cost of maintaining and renewing Trident can be borne only if the British government continues, as it has over the past five years, to make deep and damaging cuts in the kinds of basic defence services – equipment, ships, planes, fully-trained professional troops – that any modern nation arguably needs. Of course, most on the Left would argue that the world would be a better and more stable place today if Britain had had no troops to send to Afghanistan in 2001, or Iraq in 2003. Yet even if the UK had the most enlightened defence policy on the planet, it seems clear that well-trained professional forces, and the means to transport them worldwide, are more important to our long-term real security, as part of a functioning international system, than a 1960s-style nuclear weapon that we increasingly cannot even threaten to use.

All of which suggests, at the very least, that the SNP might be doing the British body politic a service by helping to open up the Trident debate. To Tories like Michael Fallon, the possible surge in SNP influence at Westminster seems like a sudden and shocking existential threat, to be met with the usual combination of bluster, denial, and demonisation.

To many of us who have been living with Scotland’s national debate for decades, though, these issues have come to seem much more nuanced. Even if Scotland had voted Yes to independence, a decade of negotiation, co-operation and re-agreement would have been necessary, as Scotland began to explore the possibilities of a future as a non-nuclear Nato state, with defence forces adapted to its own needs. And since Scotland voted No to independence – well, then the Scottish debate on Trident, and its brooding presence in our waters, remains a key and altogether reasonable part of the British picture. According to a recent opinion poll, 48 per cent of Scots want to see Trident scrapped, compared with 25 per cent across the UK as a whole; other Scottish polls put the convinced opponents of Trident at between 35 per cent and 40 per cent.

The SNP, in other words, would be well advised to remember that even in Scotland, a good half of the population remains unconvinced by this flagship policy of the Scottish Government. The UK government should likewise note that, despite the absence of real debate on the issue between the two main parties, a quarter of people across the UK still believe Trident should go.

And all parties should consider this: that whether Scotland is part of the UK or not, these questions about what we mean by defence and security in the 21st century, and how we best provide for a safe and peaceful future, need to be debated; and met not with bluster and a flash of the political knife, but with open minds, rigorous argument and a well-earned touch of humility.