Letter From America: Ian Williams

Written By: Ian Williams
Published: November 22, 2015 Last modified: October 25, 2016

Marshall Islanders shine light on nuclear hypocrisy

Clement Attlee and Ernest Bevin were among the real parents of the British In­dependent Nuclear Deterrent. Churchill was the Tory PM who gave all the technology to Roosevelt, whom he naively trusted even as Washington drained the UK Treasury dry, but it was the 1945 Labour government of saintly memory, con­front­ed with US refusal to recipro­cate Britain’s wartime handover of nuclear secrets, that decided to implement an independent nuclear programme, despite the empty coffers and Labour’s ambitious social and economic agenda.
Seeing the fate of Socialist comrades across Eastern Europe, they knew they could not trust the Soviets, and recent history, including the nuclear deal and the catastrophically abrupt end of lend-lease arrangements, taught them they could not rely on the Americans. NATO was Bevin’s baby, famously intended to keep the Germans down, the Americans in and the Russians out. But the other part was a British bomb.
As an active member of CND, with loads of frequent blister miles from Aldermaston, I was always bemused by the active Communist Party members who campaigned with seemingly total sincerity against the British nuclear weapons, but regarded the “worker’s bomb” as a benign and defensive thing. But there was a genuine dilemma: Britain had been an offshore island bereft of support before in recent memory. There was in some way a case for an independent nuclear deterrent, even if it was only a tripwire to ensure back up in case of major threats.
But while we had “the bomb,” the means of effective delivery were missing. Once the Blue Streak missile programme was abandoned under Treasury pressure the Tories turned to Washington, which was happy to have the British pay for a fistful of Polaris submarines. But like the successor, Trident, there has always been considerable doubt about just how independent that deterrent is. Could we actually independently target and fire missiles without US acquiescence?
So the current debate is more complicated than a mere issue of upgrading Trident. There is the issue of whether Britain needs an independent nuclear capability, as Bevin and Attlee wanted. Trident, new or upgraded is not necessarily the answer to that question. The other issue is, of course, whether we can afford it, which also feeds back into that question. There are few Keynesian benefits to buying off-the-shelf US technology, with strings attached or not. At a time when austerity is pushed as the answer to everything, why does it not also figure in the nuclear equation?
Do we want an independent nuclear deterrent, or do we simply want to contribute to the American arsenal like the loyal sepoys we seem to have become? Can we afford an independent deterrent, especially one as expensive as Trident?
Then there is the question of our inter­national standing. The Republic of the Marshal Islands, dubious beneficiary of much of the US’s fusion bomb testing, has a case before the International Court of Justice against Britain specifically for its failure to honour its signature on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
The case argues that although the NPT allowed the Soviets, the US, China, Britain and France, to keep their nuclear weapons while prohibiting other signat­ories from acquiring them, those nuclear powers on their part agreed to good faith negotiations to disarm, and committed themselves not stop the arms race.
At the UN the British government consistently votes against resolutions on effective disarmament and refuses even to countenance multilateral negotiations on disarmament, while it is clear that replac­ing Trident would breach the treaty oblig­ation to stop the arms race. Indeed the Trident system as an upgrade for Polaris was probably in breach of the treaty.
Britain’s behaviour has conse­quences. India, for example, consistently used the bad faith of the nuclear powers on disarmament as an excuse for developing its own nuclear arsenal. Labour has traditionally had an internationalist and multilateralist approach, and even Tony Blair thought it was important to try to get the UN to back the invasion of Iraq. The case unfolding at the The Hague and the deliberations at the UN should at least inform the Labour Party’s debate on Trident. Nye Bevan did not want to go into the conference chamber naked. Successive British governments have refused to go in at all!

About Ian Williams

Ian Williams is Tribune's UN correspondent