As the fallout of the UK’s decision to leave the European Union continues to spread through Britain and abroad, the renewal of the UK’s Trident nuclear weapons system has become the latest issue to be sucked into the ‘Brexit’ vortex.
At what would prove to be his last international engagement, David Cameron announced last Saturday at the NATO Summit in Warsaw that the parliamentary vote on renewing the four nuclear submarines that make up the nuclear programme will be held on 18 July. Yes, next Monday.
“While Britain may be leaving the EU, we are not withdrawing from the world”, Cameron confidently proclaimed. What gall to tout these weapons as a sign of Britain’s good faith participation in global affairs, especially considering the vast majority of the world’s peoples and nations are desperately looking to the UK and the other eight nuclear-armed states to finally remove the nuclear sword of Damocles hanging over our shared future.
And yes, this too is related to Brexit. It’s related in three ways: first, the vote to renew Trident is being used by the Conservative Party to close its ranks after a bitter EU Referendum campaign and subsequent leadership election, which has regurgitated Theresa May as his successor, has left it divided; second, the vote is being used to exploit divisions in the Labour Party, which is currently embroiled in an acrimonious leadership battle of its own and remains split on the issue of Trident; third, the vote is being used by the outgoing Cameron to make it clear to the rest of the world that despite the Brexit vote, Britain has no intention of retreating from the global stage.
To use an issue as important as Trident renewal as a political football – like the Conservative Party has done with the EU Referendum – is bad enough. However, there is something uniquely sinister and cynical about proclaiming the renewal of a system designed to kill millions as demonstration of Britain’s commitment to remaining ‘open for business’ and globally engaged. “While Britain may be leaving the EU, we are not withdrawing from the world”, Cameron confidently proclaimed. What gall to tout these weapons as a sign of Britain’s good faith participation in global affairs, especially considering the vast majority of the world’s peoples and nations are desperately looking to the UK and the other eight nuclear-armed states to finally remove the nuclear sword of Damocles hanging over our shared future.
There are plenty of reasons for British elected representatives to vote against Trident renewal come Monday. Rather than being the bulwark of British security, the retention of Trident ensures the UK remains exposed to the hydra-headed risk of its nuclear deterrence policy, not least the very real risk of launch by accident or miscalculation. The risks have only been compounded in recent years, with non-state actors seeking to acquire or develop nuclear capabilities and evolving cyber security threats exposing vulnerabilities of nuclear weapons systems.
Meanwhile, the costs of renewing Trident – estimated to be anywhere between £167 and £205 billion – at a time when vital public services are suffering far-reaching budget cuts is inappropriate at best, irresponsible at worst.
Then there are the well-known moral concerns about continuing to brandish and threaten with weapons that are designed for one purpose only: to kill large numbers of civilians, set cities ablaze and spread the horrific trans-generational health effects of radioactive fallout.
As the effects of these weapons cannot be contained in time or space, the UK’s decision to renew Trident does not exist in a political domestic vacuum – the international community has a stake in it. And it’s clear where the vast majority of this world’s peoples and nations fall on the question of whether the UK’s nuclear weapons offer more benefit than harm: an overwhelming majority of UN Member States have continually called for the UK and other nuclear-armed states to disarm their nuclear arsenals for the good of international peace and security.
Neither does the decision exist in a vacuum free of the rule of law. The UK is under clear international legal obligations, enshrined both in Article VI of the Non-Proliferation Treaty and customary international law, to eliminate its nuclear weapons. In fact, the Pacific island state of the Marshall Islands has taken the UK and fellow eight nuclear-armed states to the International Court of Justice for its alleged breach of its nuclear disarmament obligations. The Court has yet to decide on whether the case against the UK is to proceed to the merits phase but it should give MPs pause for thought that they are about to vote on something that is currently under review by the highest judicial organ in the world and which may be found as evidence of the UK’s continuing breach of international law.
Despite these arguments, it is expected that Parliament will overwhelmingly vote in favour of renewing Trident on Monday. Many MPs will do so as they dread the prospect of the UK losing the power and prestige Trident is perceived to convey. In particular, they are gripped by the fear that the UK may lose its seat on the UN Security Council if it disarms. For all their proclamations of commitment to internationalism, they have nothing but contempt for international law and the global community’s desire for a world free of nuclear weapons. Others will do so because they remain convinced Trident is the ultimate security guarantor, despite the clarion of calls and expert reports highlighting the risks involved with these weapons. And yet others will vote in favour as the manufacturing of the Trident submarines will take place in their constituencies and in their twisted arithmetic a few thousand jobs outweigh the peace and security of the nation and rest of the world.
Ultimately, the issue of nuclear disarmament is best understood as a social and justice struggle like the abolition of slavery, the end of apartheid and the suffragette movement. While the Conservative Government and many Labour MPs will play fast and loose with Britain’s security and global standing by voting for Trident renewal on Monday, the minority voting for Britain to live up to its nuclear disarmament obligations and being a responsible stakeholder will have to settle for the scant comfort of knowing they will be on the right side of history.