In 2009, this writer stood no more than 20 metres from the orator delivering what can fairly be described as one of the most famous speeches of the 21st century so far. I was standing among a crowd that has also been subjected to the most withering contempt from writers on both the left and the right in the intervening years. I must insist, however, that I was carrying neither an American nor a Czech flag in Hradčany Square on that hazy Sunday morning, and I only ever whoop and cheer for live music. But let’s broadly concede that those attending were uncritically appreciative of the new US president, and there were no noises hinting at scepticism as he called for a world free of nuclear weapons. At that time, Barack Obama’s aura was very strong, and, recalling how the powerful sun hadn’t yet penetrated that morning’s cloud, watching him mysteriously emerge on to the stage against a wall of nebulous white did accord with the exalted status he then widely enjoyed. His stock remains fairly strong, if only by comparison with the process by which his successor will be elected, but that’s for another time. And indeed a previous musing. Returning to the Prague speech, many on the right scoffed Obama, declaring it irresponsible to even hint at the United States relinquishing its nuclear power status when there are so many bad actors in the world seeking such a capability for themselves. Left wing commentators held that the Empire would never give up their weapons of mass destruction, and that this was just a shameless PR exercise by Mr Hopey Changey. Both strands of opinion sneered at the “adoring” crowd, and I’ll admit I’ve never gotten over my sense of resentment at being dismissed so lightly.
All of which brings me to the nuclear debate in Britain. On Monday, the UK parliament will vote on whether to renew Trident, the submarine based nuclear weapons programme that is currently estimated to cost £41bn, though such estimates have a nasty habit of creeping upwards with time. That it is militarily useless and diverts much needed resources from conventional forces scarcely needs mentioning. It doesn’t appear to dissuade the Russians from sporadically violating Britain’s airspace and territorial waters. To point out it has not only proved to be no deterrent to Britain’s enemies (you can add the IRA, the Taliban, the Argentinian junta and others to the list of hostile actors who didn’t alter their plans on the basis of Britain’s nuclear arsenal), but that it also serves as no counter to the likely ways in which Britain would ever be attacked in the future (cyber warfare being a notable example), is not even controversial. Trident’s defenders propose the most agonised hypotheticals to justify its retention, dubbing Trident the “ultimate insurance policy” – exercises they would never engage in in the context of health or education. There is perhaps one sound reason to retain nuclear power status, which is that it might be more prudent to be a multi-lateralist than a unilateralist. But of course ultimately this isn’t really a security debate. It’s a status debate, and that makes it politically interesting.
In Britain, we have just had a referendum which partly served as a proxy for many kinds of grievance bothering the British people. It was also a proxy for British neuroses about their place in the world. It is fitting that a vote on renewing Trident should follow so soon after the referendum that delivered a Brexit result. It provides another occasion to wallow further in existential questions about identity, status and destiny. When Margaret Thatcher insisted Britain was “not just another country”, she was doing so as a rejection of unilateralism. The Labour Party, of course, is currently led (though I use the word ‘led’ very loosely in the current circumstances) by a unilateralist, and Trident is one of a number of key issues where the leadership is in bitter disagreement with many of its MPs. One of the tragedies of the Labour party, especially in government, is their frequent mortal terror of being outflanked on the right. On defence especially, they feel compelled to sing tunes called by others who are not so concerned about social justice. That could be irrevocably changed if the Corbynista revolution can be completed. However, as it is currently unimaginable visualising the Labour Party in its present state entering government, it seems apparent that the only the Conservative Party can bury Trident in the short to medium term, and what are the chances of that happening?
This blog has previously written about how Britain is admired abroad in ways that aren’t especially treasured at home, and that the preoccupations of the political class and certain strands of elite opinion about what constitutes national greatness aren’t particularly respected internationally. The vote for Brexit was more generally welcomed by those with a preference for hard power, at a time when emphasising hard power at the expense of soft power is a mug’s game. The hard power associated with the capacity for undertaking expeditionary wars hasn’t proved very valuable to the countries that have been trying it since the turn of the century. And while it is almost impossible to predict how damaging Brexit will be in the long run, but one can be confident in saying that Britain has relinquished some of its large reserves of soft power. And Britain has accumulated a great deal of soft power over the last sixty years, for example, through its creative industries and its capacity for technological innovation. Some amount of that soft power will inevitably be squandered. It is impossible to see how it won’t be. And it is hard to make a case for the value or importance of Trident in the context of this new geopolitical reality.
To offer this thought, or to point out that the UK would still have the protection of the NATO nuclear umbrella, administered by the Americans who also hold sway on whether Britain could deploy their own “independent” deterrent, is a waste of breath. To be a nuclear power is to be part of a “club”. It is to hold a seat “at the top table”. There is no compelling evidence that they have greater influence with the Americans on account of being a nuclear power, or that they are taken more seriously as a country by both friend and foe. But nuclear weapons are invested with so much prestige that large swathes of the British political and military establishment will go to almost any lengths, will happily deprive other parts of the state of the funds needed to properly function, in order to maintain this illusion of power and influence. It is one of those totemic issues that are not decided by hard headed calculation or based on a rational appraisal of evidence, but are more about how you feel, and old mind-sets die hard. And so the vote to renew Trident will pass, the armed forces capabilities will otherwise decline further, Labour’s Mexican standoff will continue, and Scotland will have one more grievance to propel them further on their trajectory away from England. Welcome to this snapshot of Brexit Britain.