Those of a religious persuasion have good reason to suspect the Almighty was merely trying to present the British public with a poetic truth when a Trident test missile randomly decided to head off to the United States rather than its intended target of Africa. After all, what potential enemy could a truly ‘independent British nuclear deterrent’ possibly be protecting us against, if not a rogue United States?
Yes, here we are, just a few days into a terrifying new era in which the most powerful country on Earth has not only gone rogue, but has done so in epic style. It’s now headed by an unstable narcissist who openly stated during his election campaign that he could not rule out dropping a nuclear weapon on Europe.
No-one can credibly doubt that by far the greatest risk of the human race facing extinction over the next few years is the perfectly real possibility that President Trump will lose his head and launch an unprovoked nuclear attack (and probably announce it in block capitals on Twitter). The target is unlikely to be Britain, but who is to say for sure that it won’t be one of our allies? Trident therefore, at least in theory, has a chance to earn its keep at long last, after all the untold billions that have been squandered on it. There is a potential aggressor to deter.
Now, let’s be clear - it’s highly questionable whether the theory of nuclear deterrence is even a sound one. There have been countless near-misses since the 1940s that could have triggered Armageddon, and the fact we’ve come through them all unscathed is not proof that deterrence works – it’s far more likely that that we’ve simply been extraordinarily lucky, and that we owe a great deal to the sober judgement of a number of political and military leaders over the decades. It was Nikita Khrushchev’s recklessness that took the world closest to all-out nuclear conflict in 1962 – but it was also his intimate understanding of the horrors of war that brought the world back from the brink.
There is precious little reason to suppose that President Trump has an equivalent redeeming quality. When rationality cannot be relied upon to override narcissism, it’s unclear how deterrence is even supposed to work in concrete terms. We now face the nightmare scenario of just about the most unsuitable person imaginable holding the power of life and death over every man, woman and child on the planet. A country that prides itself on its supposed system of ‘checks and balances’ has given this one man an ultimate and autocratic power that not even Adolf Hitler could have dreamt of.
Congress or the Supreme Court might impede Trump’s progress if he tries to rip up the Nafta agreement or erode abortion rights, but they can do absolutely nothing to stop him blowing up the world at a moment of his own choosing. The nuclear ‘deterrent’ from other countries is meant to give him pause for thought, but as he seems to care little about anyone other than himself (and perhaps his immediate family), it would be a brave person who thinks that a threat to the survival of the American people will necessarily prove sufficient.
Nevertheless, for the fundamentalist true believer in deterrence, it should be absolutely possible to deter even the most crackpot autocrat. And as Britain’s possession of Trident is founded upon precisely that fundamentalist belief in deterrence, the weapon's moment in the sun has surely arrived.
We should be hearing all about how Trident will effortlessly protect our European neighbours and majority-Muslim countries against a clear threat of nuclear aggression or blackmail. Curiously, though, we’re not. A British political class that only a few months ago was questioning whether Trump should be allowed to even set foot in this country is now cringing and cowering before his power, rather than confronting him with strength.
In fairness, one profession that has shown encouraging signs of standing up to Trump since his inauguration is journalism. There has been a refreshing eagerness to distinguish between real facts and Trump’s “alternative facts”. So perhaps it’s now high time for journalists to be equally fearless in highlighting the real facts about Trident, even though they’ve been partly to blame for propagating the widely-believed alternative facts over the decades.
They should start with the most important real fact of all, and the one that has been brought into sharpest relief by the events of recent days – namely that Trident does not contribute in any way to the security of either Britain or the wider western world.
In circumstances where America can be relied upon as a loyal part of the western alliance, there is no nuclear threat to Britain that America’s weaponry alone cannot deter (assuming that deterrence works, that is). That is precisely the basis on which countries like Germany and Italy have always been told that NATO membership is sufficient and that there is no need to develop their own nuclear arsenals. But in circumstances where America can no longer be relied upon, Trident is too puny to “independently” deter any major power. The fawning attitude towards Trump since his inauguration is a tacit admission of that reality.
Which brings us neatly to Real Fact #2: Once you accept that Trident is superfluous, the only remaining conceivable explanation for our determination to waste billions on it is the depth of our need to feel important as a country. If there’s a job of deterrence to be done, Britain must feel as if it is making a significant contribution to that effort. There is, as we all know, a constant attempt to pathologise any questioning of Trident’s importance to our national safety (for example by Jeremy Corbyn) as a form of advanced mental illness. That is a sham.
And let’s not forget Real Fact #3: If Trident is about maintaining the illusion of great power status, and not about protecting the public, it is self-evidently outrageous to treat information that casts severe doubt on the safety of the weapons as if it is a state secret, as the Prime Minister and the Defence Secretary have attempted to do. The public are not, even in the most convoluted manner imaginable, being protected from themselves by having the information withheld from them. The state is being protected from the public – a fact that strikes at the heart of our supposed democracy. It may well be that the public’s blind patriotism is strong enough that they would be willing to accept the danger of being accidentally annihilated as a price worth paying for a grandiose national status symbol, but that must be a choice freely entered into.
Most importantly of all, it must be entered into freely by the people who live dangerously close to the weapons, and not just by those a few hundred miles away. Even before the new revelations about Trident, 58 of Scotland’s 59 elected representatives at Westminster had already voted to scrap the weapons. The democratic and safety case for removing unwanted weapons of mass destruction from Scottish soil and Scottish waters is now utterly unanswerable.
James Kelly's blog, Scot goes POP!, is among the most popular political blogs in the UK. He has also contributed to a number of newspapers and magazines.
James has also written for us about the madness of King Trump, the crisis created by the Brexit legal challenge and why Scottish Labour care more about Corbyn than their country.