Every so often, a news item comes along to refresh the Trident debate, and this week we had two at once. Apparently the estimated cost of the upgrade of the weapons system has skyrocketed (sic!) from £100 billion to £167 billion, with the proviso that this could well be an underestimate. Simultaneously, the historian Peter Hennessy was interviewed on the Jeremy Vine programme regarding his book (co-authored with James Jinks) “The Silent Deep”, a post-war history of the Royal Navy submarine service. Much of the interview was taken up with the grizzly details of the mechanics of “pushing the nuclear button”, or, apparently more accurately, “firing the nuclear gun”. Prof Hennessy got unprecedented access to the submarines in question, visited various nuclear bunkers, and had an unusually candid interview with the Prime Minister. It seems that in the event of the nuclear balloon going up, the captain of the submarine gets a signal ordering him to open a “letter of last resort” written to him in advance by the PM and kept in a sealed envelope, in a safe. The captain is then required to carry out the orders contained in the letter, whatever they might be. If the order is to launch an attack, this involves the simultaneous actions of three people in the submarine.
Every time Trident rears its ugly warhead like this, there is a flurry of correspondence in the letters pages of The Herald, hardly surprising since The Herald offices, 200 Renfield Street, Glasgow G2 3QB, are 33 nautical miles from Coulport, the largest repository of nuclear warheads in Europe. The burden of these passionate exchanges is always essentially the same as are indeed, the names of the eloquent correspondents themselves, well known to Herald readers. Indefensible moral obscenity, useless and hellishly expensive, versus deterrent, and “insurance policy” that has kept the peace for 70 years. The argument has continued throughout this time, with little, if any progress.
When I was a callow youth in the University Air Squadron, the Cold War was still pretty hot, and I remember having a conversation in the bar of the Officers’ Mess in RAF Abingdon, Oxfordshire, about the morality, or otherwise, of “taking out” Moscow. This was not a theoretical debate; my instructor had taken two years off flying nuclear armed Vulcan bombers to a failsafe point over eastern Europe, to teach me and my pals how to fly Chipmunks. He told me if ordered to do so, he would drop the bomb, because it was his “duty”. I told him if I were in his flying boots, I would not, as it would be a war crime. I wonder now that I had the nerve. I was after all in the RAF Volunteer Reserve. I had even signed an oath of allegiance to Her Majesty. I recall having a conversation with my Squadron Leader, when called upon to sign said document, when I asked him what I should do if I were ordered to commit an act I considered morally indefensible. To his great credit, the Squadron Leader did not give me a good bollocking (a stock response in the armed services of the time) but he took my question very seriously and gave me a reasoned and ultimately liberal reply that would have stood up at Nuremberg. So I wasn’t clapped in irons, although I did gain my nickname in the Squadron, “the pacifist intellectual” (wrong on both counts). “But enough of this airy persiflage, Campbell. Take your kite out to the local flying area, climb to 7,000 feet, and spin it. If you haven’t recovered by 3,000 feet, bale out! Now b***** off, there’s a good fellow.”
If I were PM, you may imagine what I might write in my letter of last resort. “If Blighty toast, proceed to friendly port. Suggest Auckland. Oh no! They’re nuclear free. Try Melbourne. Peace.” Mr Corbyn says something similar.
There is something very odd about these “letters of last resort”. Nobody, apart from the PM, knows what’s in them. At the end of the PM’s period in office, the letters are destroyed unopened, and the new incumbent writes new letters. He becomes the sole arbiter at Armageddon. He might decide the issue over a Ouija board, or with the toss of a coin. That seems an extraordinary excess of power for one individual to have in a parliamentary democracy. But this is how deterrence works. The idea is to put any potential aggressor into a state of not-knowing. It’s like a game of poker. The opposition needs to be convinced that their act of aggression will set off a chain of events as surely as night follows day. The Trident weapons system therefore is like a hand grenade whose pin has been removed; all the grenadier need do is cast the grenade, and it will explode. Are we bluffing? The reason why the establishment is so annoyed with Mr Corbyn is that he is not playing with a poker face.
We remain at an impasse. Is there any way we can move this debate forward? I think there is. I can readily see that that unilateralists and multilateralists are nowhere near any agreement; but there is one point of view I believe we could all rubbish unreservedly. It is the notion that the “nuclear umbrella” (I call it “GAMP” – Generally Assured Mutual Pulverisation) is anything other than a highly volatile and highly dangerous canopy to be under.) Rather than creating a new generation Trident, we need to start – just start – dismantling these hellish contraptions. The notion that the reason why we have avoided nuclear war for 70 years is because of the existence of these weapons, needs to be replaced by a different view: the fact that we have avoided a nuclear war for 70 years despite the presence of a plethora of these weapons, is nothing short of a miracle. Sooner or later, our luck will run out. You can conjure various nightmare scenarios and give them a name – the Strangelove Scenario of the rogue general, the Failsafe Scenario of the computer glitch, the Thunderball scenario of the international terrorist, the “win-win going forward” scenario of a modern manager’s absurd set of protocols…
To these I would now add the “TalkTalk scenario”. This is the way the world ends. A fifteen year old computer whizz in a bedroom in a West London suburb figures out a way to contact the silent deep, bypass the letter of last resort, and pull the trigger.
Just for the fun of it.