Britain’s new nuclear abolitionists

By Rebecca Johnson | July 15, 2008

Britain now has its own “Four Statesmen.” Following the example set by former U.S. secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, former Defense Secretary William Perry, and former Georgia Democratic Sen. Sam Nunn in their January 2007 and January 2008 Wall Street Journal essays, on June 30, the Times of London published an essay from four former British Conservative and Labour secretaries of defence and foreign affairs. The title echoed Dr. Strangelove: “Start Worrying and Learn to Ditch the Bomb.” According to the subtitle, “It won’t be easy, but a world free of nuclear weapons is possible.”

The “UK Four” are Lord Douglas Hurd and Sir Malcolm Rifkind from the Conservative Party; Lord George Robertson, a former Labour defence secretary and NATO secretary-general; and Lord David Owen, a Labour foreign secretary in the 1970s and now a Liberal Democrat peer.

Evoking the first Wall Street Journal op-ed and describing Kissinger and Shultz as “hardheaded Americans,” the UK Four wrote, “There is a powerful case for a dramatic reduction in the stockpile of nuclear weapons. A new historic initiative is needed but it will only succeed by working collectively and through multilateral institutions.” In a guarded reference to Trident, Britain’s submarine-based nuclear weapons system, they applauded the decision to bring the country’s warhead numbers down to 160. But they failed to ask the government to rethink last year’s decision to equip the country with a further generation of nuclear submarines intended to carry British nuclear weapons into the 2050s. However, they did note that Britain and France were “well placed to join in renewed multilateral efforts to reduce the number of nuclear weapons in existence” and called on the two European nuclear powers to “consider what further contribution [they] might be able to make to help to achieve the common objective.”

Describing the goal of a nuclear-weapon-free world as “achievable” with time, political will, and improvements in monitoring, the four concluded, “We must act before it is too late, and we can begin by supporting the campaign in America for a non-nuclear weapons world.” Considering that Hurd, Rifkind, Robertson, and Owen were some of the country’s staunchest believers in a British nuclear deterrent, their recognition that today nuclear weapons are a security problem–not a solution–is significant.

That said, their appeal featured more caveats than the Wall Street Journal essays and a more cautious tone than that of a speech given last February by Des Browne, Britain’s current defence secretary. In that speech, Browne told the Geneva Conference on Disarmament, “Let us all work together with resolve and ambition to lay the foundations that will allow us to move toward that shared vision of a world free of nuclear weapons.”

Browne also endorsed former Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett’s June 2007 proposal to use the expertise in the British nuclear weapons establishment to become a “disarmament laboratory.” He even furthered it, announcing an initiative to bring together the technical specialists from the five Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)-recognized nuclear weapon states (China, France, Russia, Britain, and United States) for a conference to discuss the technical challenges of nuclear disarmament.

Like these government initiatives, the Times op-ed should be welcomed. Yet, it’s hard to ignore that both follow a hasty government decision–supported by the Conservative Party–to procure the next generation of Trident nuclear weapons, which ran contrary to majority public opinion in Britain. This March 2007 decision cost the Labour Party its majority in Scotland, where government was transferred–after May 2007 elections–from the Scottish Labour Party to a coalition headed by the anti-nuclear Scottish National Party. Scottish opposition–supported by more than 70 percent of the Scottish population–is particularly important because Trident relies on two bases 35 miles west of Glasgow: The submarines are deployed from Faslane, and the nuclear warheads are stored at Coulport.

The widely held opposition to Trident renewal was confirmed by the new Scottish Parliament on June 14, 2007, when 71 members voted in favor of a motion calling on the government not to renew Trident. Only 16 members–all from the Conservative Party–voted to keep Trident. Under pressure from the Labour government in London, the Scottish Labour Party divided, with 39 members abstaining while 5 members decided to vote with the majority opposed to Trident.

The Scottish government subsequently convened a meeting of local stakeholders to discuss how it could become nuclear-weapon-free. Out of this discussion, it appointed a working group on Scotland without Nuclear Weapons, under the auspices of Bruce Crawford, the minister for parliamentary business.

At the same time, lawyers for the Scottish government have emphasized that the fundamental decision rests with the Westminster Parliament in London, as under the 1998 Scotland Act, which provided for limited devolution of powers to Scotland, issues such as defense and foreign policy were “reserved” to be decided in London rather than Edinburgh. However, the Scottish government has tax-raising authority and is responsible for road safety, emergency planning, and emergency services, as well as health and education–all relevant to Trident deployment since military convoys carrying live nuclear warheads regularly travel on public roads and sea-lanes to the Faslane and Coulport bases. The question then becomes what takes precedence–the safety and security of the Scottish people and environment, which the Scottish government is obliged and empowered to protect, or the “defence of the realm,” in which it has no independent legislative rights?

In keeping with the restrictions imposed by the Scotland Act, the working group has a formal remit that includes an examination of the current licensing and regulatory framework that exists in relation to environmental, planning, and transport issues. But it will also consider Scotland’s obligations under international law, including the NPT. The group–comprised of 13 academic, civic, and faith leaders–will report in 2009.

Meanwhile, civil society is keeping up the pressure in Scotland and the rest of Britain, explaining how nuclear weapons undermine national and international security and pushing for Britain to become a leader in the growing world movement to abolish nuclear weapons.

It seems to be working. For any of the UK Four to sign their names to the argument that nuclear disarmament is achievable signals a major shift in the middle ground of British policy. Better still, such intellectual shifts are accompanied by an increase in the proportion of British people that opinion polls show opposed to Trident replacement. Of course, the real proof of change will be in whether future actions fit the rhetoric. Thus far, these newly converted advocates of a nuclear-weapon-free world seem to believe this objective is compatible with Britain hanging on to its nuclear weapons for at least another 40 years. That’s sort of like a smoker lighting a cigarette while praying, “Please, God, make me a nonsmoker–but not yet!”

Confirming that the British establishment is still not ready to recognize that the British Bomb is part of the proliferation equation, Foreign Secretary David Miliband wrote a letter to the Times two days after the Hurd, Rifkind, Robertson, and Owen piece. In it, he spoke of the benefits of a world “without the need for” nuclear weapons, implying that such a world was far from a reality and that Britain still needed its nuclear arsenal. He wrote, “Disarmament alone will not make the world safer. . . . We need to continue sending a tough message that we will not tolerate nuclear proliferation. We are working hard to strengthen the [Nuclear] Non-Proliferation Treaty, and reinvigorate the global commitment to it. If all states live up to both the letter and the spirit of the obligations under that treaty the vision can become a reality.”

If only Miliband and Browne would follow their own advice, they would convince their fellow policy makers that Britain would be better off not replacing or modernizing its nuclear weapon system. As to convince other countries that they don’t need nuclear weapons, Britain must show that it’s prepared to surrender its own.

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