UK parliamentary debates: Some Brits throw nuclear deterrence under the coach

By John Krzyzaniak | December 4, 2019

It would be easy to miss from this side of the pond, but there’s a parliamentary election coming up in the United Kingdom on December 12. Last week, the BBC held a seven-way debate, pitting senior representatives from the major parties against one another. The debate moderator posed a seemingly straightforward question about nuclear policy, asking, “If our country was under nuclear attack, would you (or the leader of your party) use our nuclear weapons to defend our country?” Four participants said yes—but three said no.

Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister of Scotland and leader of the Scottish National Party, gave the most noteworthy answer. Her response was: “No. Absolutely and emphatically not, because it would lead to the deaths of possibly tens of millions of people and wipe out swaths of our civilization. So no, under no circumstances would I use nuclear weapons.”

For an American, to hear this coming out of a politician’s mouth might be a bit shocking. Why?

First, in the United States, the current political debate on nuclear use is very different. Some 2020 presidential candidates, such as Elizabeth Warren, are advocating a no-first-use policy, which says the United States would never be the one to initiate a nuclear war. This would be a change from current US policy; there are smart arguments on both sides. But no candidate is questioning whether the president should launch a retaliatory attack if another country initiates a nuclear war against the United States.

Second, taking retaliation off the table would appear to fly in the face of deterrence theory. By definition, deterrence requires a threat of credible retaliation. By declaring “absolutely and emphatically” that there would be no retaliation, Sturgeon seems to be undermining deterrence, which is arguably the whole point of having nuclear weapons in the first place.

Even in the face of Russian aggression, a nuclear 'Eurodeterrent' is still a bad idea

So what gives? Steven E. Miller, director of Harvard’s International Security Program and a member of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Science and Security Board, thinks there may be a few plausible explanations. One answer lies in NATO. The British nuclear force is a small component of the larger NATO deterrence system. So a politician in the United Kingdom could forswear retaliation without undermining deterrence, because the US doctrine, under which the United States would respond to any military attack on the United Kingdom, would remain intact. Better to let the Americans do the dirty work.

Another explanation could be that retaliation would be strategically disastrous. If the United Kingdom were to come under nuclear attack from Russia, its own retaliation options would not be good. They would not have enough nuclear weapons to knock out all of Russia’s, so any retaliation would probably be aimed at Russian cities. And such an attack would almost certainly prompt an even larger Russian nuclear attack against British cities.

A third answer might be that, from the British perspective, there is nothing to deter. If a large-scale war caused by Russian aggression is inconceivable, then deterrence and retaliation are irrelevant. That’s hard to buy though, since on the continent, European leaders are seeing a greater need for nuclear deterrence, not a lesser one.

Perhaps the best explanation, however, is not strategic, but political. Although a majority of British citizens support nuclear weapons, a consistent minority has long opposed having or using them. So Nicola Sturgeon might just be telling her base what they want to hear.

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brian keane
brian keane
4 years ago

Hello From Scotland.. In Fact, From the Clyde.. Just to fill you in, Nicola, and 50% of Scots are fighting for an Independent Scotland.. And Nuclear WMD free Scotland.. Whilst maybe just over 50% of Scots want Independence.. The Vast majority of us want WMD’s out of the Clyde …It’s Not a Flippant issue to Scotland.

4 years ago

Another answer might be that Nicola Sturgeon is not prepared to commit the mass murder of hundreds of thousands of civilians by launching a nuclear attack, and has the principles to say so, and that she is genuinely committed to nuclear disarmament and achieving a world without nuclear weapons.

Sebastian Brixey-Williams

Hi John, You’re quite right in saying that the British debate is quite different from the US debate. I think, however, you might be looking for ‘rational’ strategic reasons for these positions, when not everything can be seen through this lens, and in fact they instead come down to morality, first, and secondly to politics. The Green Party, SNP and Plaid Cymru parties and memberships have longstanding moral objections to nuclear weapons, representing a significant constituency within the United Kingdom that has a deeply-held discomfort about nuclear weapons possession. Their response to this question has to be all the more… Read more »