The failed test of a Trident II D5 missile by the British Submarine, Vengeance, as reported in the Sunday Times on 22nd January, has re-opened the British nuclear deterrent debate. This debate was supposed to be settled in July, where a Parliamentary debate to affirm the UK’s commitment, interpreted as a greenlight to continue procurement and planning for the Dreadnought class of submarines, passed with a sizable majority. Opponents of Trident are now trying to hold the Prime Minister accountable for withholding the information from Parliament.
“We’ve got to have that thing over here, whatever it costs … we’ve got to have the bloody union jack flying on top of it” –Ernest Bevin
Ernest Bevin’s quote on nuclear weapons still informs much of the debate around the UK’s nuclear deterrent today.
What the then foreign minister said, in one of the secret meetings to discuss Britain developing nuclear weapons in 1946, has developed its own kind of folklore. Other oft cited reasons to highlight the supposed ridiculousness of British nuclear weapons such as using nuclear weapons to get America’s attention and to keep/get/retain the UK’s seat on the UN security council keep going around.
Ernest Bevin’s patriotic quote is in my opinion a terrible reason for developing nuclear weapons. But the decision to acquire nuclear weapons didn’t rest on the back of the comments of a single minister. The British Nuclear Experience, by John Baylis and Kristan Stoddart unravels the complex issues and multiple independent stakeholders involved in the UK’s decision to develop nuclear weapons. There was a ‘state of mind’ in UK nuclear culture that propagated the idea in UK strategic culture during the cold war. However, we are not held to the reasons of the past. We must dispassionately weigh the evidence on having a nuclear capability in the UK based on the today’s security requirements.