On Remembrance Sunday, Andrew Marr interviewed the Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir Nicolas Carter. It was an interview about the particular perils of the world in which we live, and our response to them. Sir Nicolas did not agree with President Macron, that NATO is brain dead, and he thought President Trump had a valid point in insisting that member states pay 2% of GDP on defence. There was discussion about cyber warfare, subversion, and assassination as techniques of international political interference. Sir Nicolas regarded China as a “challenge”, while Russia was “a threat”. His opinions were military rather than political; in an earlier age he might have remarked, “Leave that one to the frocks.” Perhaps that was why Mr Marr chose to listen respectfully and not constantly interrupt.
Trident came up, briefly. I pricked my ears up, as, living 25 nautical miles from the biggest nuclear arsenal in Europe, I have an interest. Sir Nicolas described Britain’s nuclear deterrent as an “insurance policy”. He asked, “Who can tell what the world will look like in 2035?” It turned out to be a rhetorical question, bringing the interview to an end. Both men looked relieved. It’s often the way with Trident. Best not talk about it; pretend it isn’t there. I suppose insurance policies are a little like that. You buy a little peace of mind (in this case for 100 billion pounds) in order to forget about it.
It’s a pity they ran out of time, because Mr Marr might have asked, “In what sense is Trident an insurance policy?” As it so happens, I have just renewed two insurance policies, one for my house, and one for my car. The idea is that I pay some money into a collective fund so that, should I suffer a mishap, the fund will finance me to repair the damage, to my house, house contents, or car. I rather hope I won’t suffer a mishap, indeed I hope all I am buying is peace of mind, and that my contribution will be used to sustain the fund and assist others in dealing with their mishaps. Insurance is a collective enterprise. So I pay my dues, and then forget about it. It’s only when I crash my car, or my house burns down, that my insurance policy kicks in and I find I have the means to repair or replace my belongings.
Now Trident isn’t like that at all. Trident is supposed to be a deterrent. It exists in order to deter an enemy from attacking us. The enemy has to understand that attacking us will result in an inevitable and devastating response. Trident is like a grenade whose pin has been removed and which will detonate if it is cast. It is “locked and loaded”. When a previous Minister of Defence, Sir Michael Fallon, was challenged that Trident as a Weapon of Mass Destruction could never be used, he replied that on the contrary Trident was being used every day, because it functioned as a deterrent every day. So let us suppose that, despite its existence, we are subjected to nuclear attack. This would signal the failure of Trident to act as a deterrent. Therefore a deterrent is the exact opposite of an insurance policy. For as long as my car and my house are intact, my insurance policy is dormant. When the blow falls, my insurance policy kicks is and begins to work for me. But so long as we are not subject to nuclear attack, we may imagine our deterrent is working. When we are attacked, our deterrent ceases to work and demonstrates that it has never worked.
Forgive me for labouring the point, but the point is that Trident qua insurance policy is, frankly, a load of tosh. It’s a slipshod metaphor, a cliché. The greatest challenge facing humanity today is: how can we all get along together without destroying ourselves and the planet? And we don’t really think about it. Not really.