Trident: disarm and move on

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Ali Begg
Editor

The campaign for nuclear disarmament has seen a renewed burst of enthusiasm in Scotland in recent years. It cannot be argued that Scotland’s place within the global nuclear landscape has ever been of minor concern, but it can, I think, be argued that its status as a poster-issue for the Yes movement has brought the debate to the forefront of the public eye in the run-up to the referendum. Although the campaign for worldwide disarmament has its roots in the CND movement, to some degree misattributed to the well-meaning but politically vapid ‘flower-power’ movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s, this is not an issue that should be written off as a concern for aging hippies and vaguely left-leaning shouty activists. Nobody can deny the potential threat posed by a global culture that sees formidable nations arming themselves to the teeth with as much nuclear firepower as possible, even if only to preserve some grotesque international status quo. The entire process is a dangerous pissing contest: the arms race to (potentially) end all arms races.

As has been the case with much of the referendum chatter, it’s hard to quantify the levels of support and opposition for nuclear disarmament in the country. The now slightly derelict Yes Scotland website has this to say: “There is widespread opposition in Scotland to the presence of nuclear weapons here because they are immoral, they are incredibly expensive and almost useless in terms of protecting us against the most significant threats to our national security.”

As problematic and over-zealous as this statement may be, I would like to think that it rings true with many of us in Scotland. The level to which Scotland has historically been utilised for military and defence purposes by the United Kingdom has always left me feeling less than comfortable (more on this later) and I am not alone in this sentiment.

Whether you feel that weapons of mass destruction are an affront to a civilised global society or a necessary evil, it is important to remember what these devices are capable of. Where the actual use of such weaponry feels so far removed from our day-to-day lives, it can be alarmingly easy to sideline Trident as an inert force: unthreatening in that we don’t expect it to be used as anything other than a deterrent. Yet, all these years later, it is worth remembering the impact of the Little Boy bomb, dropped on Hiroshima in August of 1945. We all know the story, and it will perhaps appear tiresome to meditate on the subject, but the death en masse of 66,000 people is not something that should be forgotten. Such a colossal loss of life, including those of roughly 46,000 civilians, is staggering to comprehend. War is war, and the moral implications of operating and controlling devices with this kind of killing power are complex, but the Trident programme cannot be written off as a mere deterrent when its potential destructive power is so absolute. A chat with any pro-disarmament type down the pub will inevitably come round to the ‘what if it goes wrong?’ question. Whilst I am wholly unqualified to comment on the likelihood of a freak accident at Trident wiping out half of Europe, the concern should not be that the nuclear tin cans floating around our shores are going to kill us all, but rather that they are ultimately designed to be capable of killing vast swathes of people anywhere in the world.

The case against Trident as a financial sink-hole is also compelling. The annual operating costs of the programme have been estimated at between 5 and 6% of the annual defence budget, which could amount to as much as £2.4 billion, making it the single most expensive British defence project. Furthermore, it has been suggested that the cost of Trident and any succeeding programme could amount to as much as 35% of the total defence budget by 2021. The sums are staggering, and with a replacement system still potentially on the cards the costs could be set to expand exponentially. Whilst it is notoriously difficult to define the costs of such long-term investments, estimates for the one-off costs of replacing the system range from £20bn – £30bn. Coupled with David Cameron’s assumption that the programme will continue to incur an annual running cost of around £2bn, the total costs incurred by Trident over the next 30 years could near the £90bn mark. The Yes Scotland campaign liked to parade these costs in front of us, suggesting that the funds released through disarmament would provide a huge boost for an independent Scotland’s economy. Their website still states that “(Scotland’s) share of the annual running costs of the current Trident submarines could instead be used to train 3,880 nurses or 4,527 teachers, or to build 13 to 20 primary schools.” Whilst this kind of quasi-economic propaganda should perhaps be taken with a pinch of salt, it cannot be denied that the Trident programme costs an economically struggling country a phenomenal amount of money. We have reached a point at which we have to question the financial validity of continuing to support such an ethically divisive programme, rather than attempting to better the quality of life for our own people.

It is, of course, difficult to propose disarmament in the UK when growing nuclear power elsewhere in the world is still of real concern. Many nations in possession of nuclear arms (including the United States, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom, France and China) are controlled to a degree through the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, and further European countries have stable arrangements in place on the use of nuclear deterrents through NATO. However, there are still states believed to be in possession of nuclear weapons that have entered no international agreements on the usage and proliferation of such technologies. Most notable on this list is North Korea, a less than stable nation as it is, who have claimed on several occasions to have performed successful nuclear testing. The first of these was announced on the third of October, 2006, and carried out six days later. The blast was relatively small compared to nuclear testing performed by other countries, and some radioactive output was detected. It has been speculated that the yield of the test was around 0.48 kilotons, and that this may have been the result of a partially failed detonation. In comparison, the most powerful nuclear test in history was the Russian ‘Tsar Bomba’ detonated in 1961, which yielded between 50 and 58 megatons. There are those that claim that North Korea is not in possession of nuclear armaments and is rather engaged in scare tactics, imitating the effects of nuclear testing through other means. However, a further test in May of 2009 yielded 2.35 kilotons, and was highly condemned by the United Nations Security Council. While Western governments can cite any such potential threat, it becomes easy to argue that the only way to deter such a threat is to possess equally threatening technology. This breeds an international culture of aggression and a situation in which nations are constantly at risk of slipping back into a full-on arms race. Regardless of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, if other nations were to continue to develop increasingly powerful nuclear devices, it is inconceivable that Western governments would not respond in kind. The longer the situation goes on, the higher the stakes.

It is here, at a global level, that we come to the epicentre of the issue. The only way to diffuse this desperately dangerous and unstable status quo is to promote the nuclear disarmament of all nations. At the risk of slipping right into sentimental pseudo-philosophy or the burnt-out rhetoric of the hippie movement (there really is no other way to address this), we have to believe as human beings that we do not need to scare the shit out of each other with nuclear weapons in order to co-exist on the same planet. The basis for possessing nuclear weapons boils down to an ‘us or them’ approach that is ultimately repulsive.

As pressure on the government within Scotland and the UK as a whole continues to mount, Britain could become an important leading example if it were to scrap Trident. Maybe I do find myself turning into an aging hippy trapped in the body of a 21 year old, but I can’t help but find the juxtaposition of such weaponry with Scotland’s landscape disconcerting. Whilst it may seem strange to be waxing on about the Scottish countryside just now, this is something that has always affected me on a personal level. I grew up in an area of the West Highlands that saw extensive military training and testing during the Second World War. One of my most vivid childhood memories is of wandering along a beach in the local area and coming across an old, rusted, fully intact hand grenade. I have no idea whether the thing posed any real danger to me, but I remember a feeling of deep unease even at the age of eight or nine years old that something designed to kill people had turned up in this beautiful setting. I found myself revisiting this memory recently, whilst on a trip to the long disused and derelict Loch Long torpedo range near Arrochar (see the centre spread of this issue for a look at this incredibly atmospheric location).  The range has been out of commission since the ‘80s, but I found myself imagining the work that went on there. By all accounts it housed a vibrant community of local workers grateful for the employment, but at some level I couldn’t reconcile the ghost of this community and the beauty of the location with the instruments of destruction that were once built and tested there.

This is, I think, the most personal issue that I take with Trident’s placement in Scotland. The presence of such powerful armaments in our waters seems to me to go against so much of the sense of community present in the country on both a regional and national level. The United Kingdom as a whole should be attempting to progress as a positive global force, and I would be extremely proud to see the people of Scotland and the United Kingdom as a whole continuing to push for nuclear disarmament. We have the opportunity to set an unparalleled example and become a voice for change on the international stage, working towards a global society that is based on co-operation rather than fear.