The UK government is quietly debating the future of our nuclear weapons at a time of massive cuts to defence spending. Here’s a Thought for the Day talk I broadcast in 2006 looking at the some of the underlying issues that are often left out of the debate.
Like many of my generation, my introduction to political activism came with the huge CND rallies of the 1980s. Hundreds of thousands of us gathered in Hyde Park to oppose American cruise missiles and Margaret Thatcher’s decision to develop Trident. Scientists had set the doomsday clock–which measures the imminent danger of nuclear war– at three minutes to midnight, and my friends and I were truly frightened that an accident or miscalculation would end our young lives.
Armageddon never came, the cold war ended, and as the threat of nuclear conflict has apparently receded, our emotions have cooled. A number of those I heard addressing the crowds in Hyde Park are now members of the cabinet that this week announced its unanimous decision to replace Trident.
Now that the doomsday clock stands only at seven minutes to midnight, opposition to Trident is likely to be less urgent, but the case for replacing it is also weaker. Advocates of a British deterrent can no longer argue that it stands between us and a Soviet invasion, and they’re saying nothing about how these weapons might actually be used. Instead we hear that they underpin our global influence and that disarmament would be seen as weakness.
This time around, there will, at least, be a national debate and a parliamentary vote before the decision on Trident is taken. I hope this debate will include discussion of what national security really means. The Buddha argued that a nation’s strength ultimately derives, not from military power, but from the strength of its civil society.
In the Buddha’s lifetime, the independent tribal republics of northern India were gradually conquered by aggressive new empires. When the ruler of one rising power planned to invade one of the last republics, he asked the Buddha if he would succeed.
The Buddha replied, ‘So long as the republic’s citizens have frequent, well attended, harmonious gatherings and respect their laws and traditions, they can expect to flourish, not to decline.’
This is an early argument that democracy and civil society are more powerful in the long term than military might. The nuclear arms race may have bankrupted the Soviet Union but it was also defeated by dissidents, by movements like Solidarity and by the disillusionment of its citizens.
As teenagers, my friends and I were alienated from mainstream British politics by the fact that our government had weapons that could kill millions of people and, under certain circumstances, was willing to use them. For us, nuclear weapons make our society weaker and, in the end, make our nation less secure.
First broadcast 25 November 2006
Britain’s nuclear spending soars amid defence cuts, The Observer,
Philip Hammond quells doubts over commitment to Trident replacement, guardian.co.uk,
MoD spends £2bn on nuclear weapons ahead of Trident renewal decision, guardian.co.uk,