Presented as an in/out choice, it’s unlikely the British electorate would vote to scrap nuclear weapons. This could be a thorny issue if it become a cornerstone policy of a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour party. But a proper strategy, with a timetable for downgrading the UK’s nuclear status could be a better way of winning the argument.
It’s now becoming clear that one of the key pieces of ammunition the Tories will use against Jeremy Corbyn (should he become Labour leader) is that his anti-nuclear weapons position is a threat to the UK’s security.
Much of the British public are resigned to the belief that nuclear weapons are a necessary evil – ensuring no enemy would ever dare attack us for fear of nuclear retaliation. This view persists as the status quo – regardless of the fact that nuclear weapons have been of little value in any British military conflict in the last 30 years.
A YouGov poll from 2013 found that only 29% of the public were in favour of scrapping nuclear weapons altogether. One reason the pro-nuclear view has taken hold so firmly, is because the possession of nuclear weapons is usually presented as an ultimatum – you either have them or you don’t. And as one of the five NATO nuclear-weapon states and a permanent member of the UN Security Council, it’s long been taken as a given that the UK will always remain a nuclear-armed country.
However, there is another way this issue can be approached – one that specifically side-steps the in/out conundrum. Instead, a roadmap to British nuclear disarmament could be presented as a staggered, strategic process that could see the UK gradually downgrade its nuclear weapons status over a number of years.
A framework for this already exists (albeit in a patchwork fashion) within NATO. Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey are all part of NATO’s nuclear weapons sharing programme. Under this agreement, the United States loans weapons and launch equipment, but the equipment remains the property of the US. Considering Britain’s Trident missiles are already wholly manufactured by a US company (Lockheed Martin) and the nuclear warheads are co-manufactured by the USA and UK – this move to weapons sharing rather than weapons owning would not be as dramatic a shift as it sounds. Most importantly, it would be highly symbolic of Britain’s aspiration towards disarmament.
Germany’s participation in NATO’s nuclear weapons sharing programme is the most useful precedent though. The German reunification treaty of 1990 made it a permanent Nuclear-Weapons-Free Zone. This means that the Germans take the weapons sharing relationship a step further than the other four members – with the German army being a non-nuclear force (US-loaned or otherwise). It does however, posses a number of weapons systems that could be adapted to deliver nuclear weapons. If war was declared and a decision was made, Germany could very quickly take delivery of nuclear weapons from another NATO state or even manufacture its own – Germany certainly possess the resources and technological expertise to do so.
The German scenario shows how Britain can continue to present itself as an effective part of NATO, even without nuclear weapons stored and armed on its soil. This ability to quickly go from non-nuclear to nuclear-armed in a relatively short space of time, would appease the more hawkish voices in Britain but still be a dramatic step away from the current status quo.
The above suggestions could seem like a big set of compromise to those fully committed to complete nuclear disarmament, but small steps in the right direction are better than no steps at all. And considering how entrenched in British minds this issue is, a complete overnight disarmament would never take hold with voters. But a strategic downgrading – first moving to a NATO weapons sharing arrangement, then to maintaining only launch systems (with no weapons) and finally a removal of the launch systems all together – represents the kind of journey the British public could conceivably take. And in this case, a slow journey is preferable to a quick ultimatum – especially when you know the answer will be no.