Question Time, Nukes, and Jeremy Corbyn

In the wake of the apparent eagerness of the BBC Question Time audience last night to unleash nuclear holocaust on the world in a pre-emptive first strike against the middle east and North Korea, I have a few thoughts to express.

Before I get into this, I’d like to point out that, unlike a lot of the Corbynistas, lefties and socialists out there, I believe there is value in retaining a nuclear deterrent for this country. I am not convinced that Trident is the best option for Britain, but that is the sort of thing that a strategic defence review would look at in detail. I am not ever likely to be in the position of making policy on this sort of thing, let alone having the responsibility of writing the “letter of last resort”. I wonder if a more useful weapon might be a tactical rather than strategic warhead, but then I worry that if the full horror is lessened somewhat by that sort of decision, would it make nuclear war more rather than less likely? To put it mildly, I feel very strongly that any decision about nuclear weapons should be taken as carefully and with as much deep reflection as possible.

Consequently, it’s not the sort of thing that sways my vote overall. I am not competent to make such big decisions. I have a well-read layperson’s understanding of the history, politics, science and so on, concerning nuclear weapons. Were I to be Prime Minister, then I would have available far more expert sources to advise me and inform me. (The competence of a PM might be measured by how willing they are to listen to those sources. Theresa May fills me with no confidence she even asks them in the first place.)

So, I am in theory in favour of retaining a nuclear capability.

Mr Corbyn last night made a few statements that he essentially rejigged each time the audience badgered him on it:

  • He would seek through diplomacy to avoid a situation where the use of nuclear weapons seemed imminent
  • Any situation where nuclear weapons were likely to be used meant it was already disastrous for the world and this country, regardless of whether nukes were used or not
  • He would not authorise first-use (i.e. no pre-emptive strike)
  • He would send a “Letter of Last Resort” to Trident commanders if he was made PM
  • He would seek to negotiate multilateral nuclear disarmament (in line with our commitments as signatories of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty)

The first point seems uncontroversial. To paraphrase, “to jaw-jaw is better than to war-war”. The pacifist, liberal, pinko, commie Britain-hater who uttered those words was, if I recall correctly, one Winston Churchill. Corbyn is only saying the same as Churchill, although how much Churchill meant it is another question!

To support the second statement, I will turn to that other pacifist thinker, Sun Tzu. Oh, wait, did I say pacifist? I meant author of “The Art of War”. This classic document includes the immortal phrase that if you have to fight, you have already lost. This is the statement that Corbyn made.

I’ve watched a few “war games” programmes on the BBC: either dramas or simulations. A drama is where it’s scripted and the participants are actors; a simulation is where the events are scripted but the people responding are professionals or retired professionals and demonstrating for the viewers how our leaders would make their decisions faced with a crisis. The one thing that all these make clear is that, by the time you get to a situation where nuclear weapons use seems imminent (regardless of whether you’re considering a pre-emptive strike) then conditions must have reached an appalling humanitarian and military crisis, regardless of who the enemy is or why you’re considering it.

By the time you even start thinking about the big red button as a response to a situation, it must already be so bad that this country has already objectively suffered a huge loss.

My next thoughts are about the nature of the weapon we have, and cover Corbyn’s third point as well.

Trident is designed as a retaliatory strike weapon to deliver strategic warheads designed to obliterate major industrialised cities or centres. It’s designed this way because it was designed and built for the Cold War, when we thought that Russia was the most likely aggressor and that the aim would be global domination of one mindset over another.

The fabled “4-minute warning” was always a myth in those circumstances. That was closer to the flight time of the Russian missiles to Britain, and the general public would have less than a minute’s warning, if that. The only people with time to reach shelters would be those directly informed: the generals, the PM, and a few others.

That’s why the Letter of Last Resort was so important, and that’s why Trident was so important. Our aircraft bomb delivery systems (the “V-force” bombers) were obsolete – the planes would be annihilated on the ground before they even had a chance take off.

So for Corbyn to say that he wouldn’t authorise first use, all he’s really saying is that the weapon we’ve got is intended for retaliatory use, and since last night he didn’t rule out authorising such use (though in the past he has said he wouldn’t authorise it) all we really have is that he wouldn’t use Trident in a way that it wasn’t designed for.

Trident is a strategic weapon designed to obliterate industrialised cities. It’s a multiple independently-targeted re-entry vehicle (MIRV), meaning each missile carries several warheads, each of which can be aimed at a different city.

It is not designed for tactical targeting or to take out smaller sized targets. It is a weapon intended to reduce several cities of 100,000 or more people each, to rubble and ash. It is not designed to hit military targets, or precision targets. It’s designed to kill civilians, en masse. It was a part of the concept of Mutual Assured Destruction, or MAD (and the acronym was deemed sickly appropriate) by which the threat of nuclear war was deterred by the fact that if ever one side launched against the other, they could be sure that a massive retaliatory strike would obliterate their entire population, leaving nothing behind and ensuring that they didn’t gain anything by the attack.

I grew up in the 1980s, when all these acronyms were flying around: MAD, MIRV, ICBM, and so on. The threat of potential nuclear annihilation in a Soviet/USA showdown or accidental launch was ever-present (it’s why I relate strongly to the line about “For we who grew up tall and proud/ in the shadow of the mushroom cloud” from Queen’s Hammer To Fall). I watched the scene in Terminator 2 where Sarah Connor has a brief vision of an H-bomb being detonated in a major US city, and being incinerated by the fireball. I worry that people a few years younger than me don’t remember what that was like – they don’t have that emotional connection to the issue that I do. My parents were part of the Peace Campaign, and CND (the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) and that was a part of my upbringing. I still believe in principle in the things we campaigned for back then although, as I said, I take a somewhat more bleak view such that I feel that a nuclear deterrent is a sad necessity.

My point is, facts like those above are a part of my background in a deep and emotional way. They mean things.

I cannot imagine the circumstances under which I would actually launch nuclear weapons. The consequences of such an appalling act would be horrific and, as a Christian, I would not like to face my Lord Jesus on Judgement Day and try to justify the weight of those deaths on my soul. My support for a nuclear deterrent is on the hope that it would never have to be used, and that sadly, the past 20 years or so of diplomacy and world actions seem to show that the USA only listens to those countries it thinks have their own nukes (and even then, not always). The aim should be to change that situation, though. (Another reason why Trident might not be right for us: although we build our own warheads, they are useless without the missiles, and those come from the US, and effectively have a veto built in so that the US can stop us launching unless they approve.)

To return to the point that we all lose if nukes are used. I remember the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, in which a reactor meltdown released huge plumes of radioactive fallout into the atmosphere. We think these days of the heavily-irradiated landscape immediately around the city as being the aftermath, but at the time for a few years afterwards, there were much higher levels of background radiation found far away, in the UK as well. These were most noticeable in sheep in the highlands of Wales and Scotland – the radiation entered our food chain! (One of my favourite CND campaign images was a protest march: two men and a sheep, “Nuclear-free UK!” “Nuclear Free Europe!” “Nuclear-free lambs!”) The consequences of a nuclear warhead being detonated in anger would spread far beyond the target nation.

Jeremy Corbyn’s position, as outlined last night, was responsible and appreciative of the full consequences of what it would mean if Britain ever felt it had to deploy a nuclear weapon. He spoke of honouring our treaty obligations and seeking multilateral disarmament, helping to get rid of nuclear weapons worldwide. (The NPT requires signatories including the Big 5 at the time it was written, to disarm as soon as is practicable. None of the Big 5 have taken steps to do so…)

I am in favour of multilateral disarmament.

* * *

In summary: while I am no longer in favour of unilateral disarmament, I cannot find anything controversial about the position Mr Corbyn outlined last night and feel alarmed that so many people – even people old enough to have lived through the threat of nuclear annihilation – seem to view the prospect of using nukes almost with glee.

It is reasonable to seek to avoid nuclear confrontation by early and determined diplomatic negotiation and action. The pre-emptive murder of many hundreds of thousands of civilians is a strange thing to contemplate, and to judge someone willing to do it as more suitable to lead the country seems absurd.

And this country signed up to a worldwide pact to get rid of nuclear weapons as soon as may be achieved, so saying that is an aim is just saying that we honour our commitments.

And, because I mentioned the song in the post – Queen Live at Wembley performing Hammer To Fall:

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About ValeryNorth

I overthink everything.
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