Question Time: Britain’s nuclear choices and the context


Using the Question Time format, audience members were invited to submit questions on the United Kingdom's nuclear weapons posture and plans on October 31. Anita Anand, BBC presenter on Radio 4 and 5, was the Chair. The panelists were:

  • Baroness Shirley Williams
  • Dr. Julian Lewis, MP
  • Sir David Omand, former senior official, UK Ministry of Defence
  • Tim Hare, former director, nuclear policy, UK Ministry of Defence
  • Prof. Michael Clarke, RUSI

The meeting was sponsored by Lord Browne of Ladyton, co-Chair of the Trident Commission alongside Sir Malcolm Rifkind MP and Sir Menzies Campbell MP. It was held in the Palace of Westminster.

The first Trident Commission Question Time Parliamentary meeting was a lively and broad-ranging debate. Issues covered included the international context within which Britain sits, the responsibility British governments have to strengthen non-proliferation norms whilst also defending the United Kingdom, the need for a nuclear deterrent, the risks involved in nuclear deployments, and in the options facing the country.

One aspect of the debate that attracted particular focus was whether Britain could indeed influence other states’ nuclear weapons decisions, and whether a British decision to exit the nuclear game would have the positive impact on the non-proliferation regime many claim, or indeed a negative one. British responsibilities towards its allies and towards sharing the nuclear burden within NATO were raised and discussed, without consensus. Would allies see British disarmament as irresponsible, or that it would lay their security at risk or weaken the U.S. commitment to Europe? On the other hand, how would British taxpayers respond to the argument that we should be spending billions on maintaining the deterrent because non-nuclear allies were uncomfortable if we switched?

David Omand expressed the strong opinion that British disarmament would have absolutely no positive impact on the possibilities of other countries following suit. He said that we do not have to bribe other states to engage in non-proliferation because it is in everyone’s interest. Instead, he argued that we should focus on solving the underlying demand-side regional conflicts.

(Shown: Menzies Campbell, Charles Guthrie, Ian Kearns)

There was consensus on the panel that nuclear weapons could not be dealt with in isolation from conventional imbalances. Julian Lewis took this further and went beyond the consensus, by saying that nuclear disarmament without a transformation in conventional balances and the deeply embedded conflicts in global relations would be positively dangerous. He believed that the more lucrative approach to disarmament lay in the effective promotion of democracy. David Omand agreed that we tend to blame the nuclear weapons, when in fact the problem is in the underlying conflict. Michael Clarke claimed that progress in nuclear arms control can have a particular positive impact on the relationship between states because these weapons represent the apex of strategic state power, and willingness to restrain in this area shows willingness to cooperate.

There was agreement that the United States and Russia have a special responsibility because they still fail to deploy a minimum deterrent as defined within the British perspective (the ability to do sufficient damage to deter), as opposed to numbers greatly in excess of this that were in relationship to the other. David Omand used China as an example of a nuclear weapon state that also practiced minimum deterrence, and pointed to their likely future deployment of a continuous at sea deterrent as a stabilising factor. He believed that there was an established stability between many of the nuclear weapon states, though expressed concern about Pakistan and the emergence of Iran as a possible deploying state. He also recognised that multilateral deterrence may be less stable than bilateral.

Nevertheless, Mike Clarke spoke provocatively of Britain being perhaps the most proliferatory state because its security did not require its current level of deployment, or indeed any deployment. He talked of Britain needing to kick its addiction to nuclear weapons, which had been an irrelevant self-calming drug during the Cold War and that would look increasingly expensive and useless as British decision-makers failed to come to grips with the reality. The principle reason given to retain nuclear weapons, that of future uncertainty, is inherently proliferatory because there is no difference in this respect between Britain and any other state. Shirley Williams talked of the decision to renew as giving the green light to others.

Shirley Williams and Julian Lewis(Shown: Shirley Williams and Julian Lewis)

Julian Lewis responded by saying that there is a difference between uncertainty and unpredictability. Virtually all conflicts were difficult to predict, and just because Britain was not in a position to predict major conflict today did not mean we could rest on our laurels. He denied that there was any green light to other states, and challenged anyone to come up with a state that was in strategic competition with Britain. The principal barriers to acquisition were rather the industrial and diplomatic costs. David Omand pointed out that we should put higher priority on strengthening the non-proliferation regime. Tim Hare pointed out that previous British reductions had had minimal impact on the decisions of other countries.

When discussing alternative options, David Omand thought that any alternatives would be more expensive and offer less capability. Julian Lewis suggested that reduced capabilities, such as dual-capable submarines (requiring more of them), could be downright dangerous, leading to crisis instability and vulnerability. Tim Hare was particularly worried by the slippery slope of what he described as a part-time deterrent (abandoning continuous at sea deterrence). He thought there were technical, moral, and other credibility dangers that would be worse than abandoning the project altogether. He cited the Schlesinger Report to Congress that pointed to the dangers of reduced professional commitment to handling nuclear weapons.

Shirley Williams pointed to the severe proliferatory dangers facing us, as outlined in the Commission’s report published earlier that day, and that it was irresponsible not to put that aspect front and centre of the decision. Simply responding by maintaining our deterrence would contribute by legitimising nuclear weapons and lead to an unstoppable momentum. Some states, particularly Pakistan and Russia, showed dangerous signs of deepening dependence. She was worried that Congressional push-back against arms control in Washington and the re-emergence of Putin-style suspicion in Moscow did not bode well for the prospects for progress in the near future. She was also worried that some states might be hedging and could choose to acquire nuclear weapons in the future, leading to a sudden domino effect. She said we had after the Cold War entered a new stage of complacency that was unjustified, and that we now urgently needed to shift that dependence away from nuclear weapons.

Tim Hare agreed that there appeared to be an increasing dependence on nuclear weapons in Moscow, and that some there were beginning to see the U.S. thrust for arms control as a ploy to exploit conventional superiority.

Speaking from the floor, Ian Kearns asked how Britain could best reduce the possibility that nuclear weapons could be used in a world where they are proliferating. He asked whether the panellists saw any direct relationship between a demonstrated willingness of nuclear weapon states to disarm and the willingness of non-nuclear weapon states to strengthen global non-proliferation measures. Michael Clarke responded by pointing to the need for the vision of a world free of nuclear weapons in order to motivate all states to engage in positive diplomacy, and to guide our policy direction towards what he called the base camp. All nuclear weapon states had a role to play in this.

The meeting concluded with a discussion on public interest in the issue, with some division on the panel around the desirability of an open public debate. David Omand pointed to the dangers of this becoming a political issue in the run up to the election, determined by factors independent of national security. Julian Lewis expressed some satisfaction that the last time it was a public issue during elections (in the 1980s) the public expressed a clear preference for nuclear deterrence. Tim Hare also expressed the view that an informed public debate was far preferable to an uninformed one, but that the latter is likely unless those involved speak out. Michael Clarke agreed, but also thought it unlikely this would be a big public issue unless there was a scare, because it does not feel like an immediate issue and is a long way from Britain’s shores.

The Trident Commission plans to hold a series of future meetings in 2012 to continue this debate.

(Photos: Kim Waller)