Image credit: Wikimedia

Knives and gunfights: an argument against national nuclear disarmament

Image credit: Wikimedia
Image credit: Wikimedia

Among the many things that the Conservatives and others have said to be evidence of Jeremy Corbyn’s mental problems, and his party’s threat to national / economic / family / Conservative popularity security, is his opposition to nuclear weapons. The new Leader of the Opposition is faced with uniting his party in either supporting or opposing the UK’s possession of nuclear weapons and the renewal of Trident, the four submarines carrying, at the maximum, sixty-four nuclear missiles.

Nuclear weapons shouldn’t really exist. They have the capacity to kill hundreds of thousands in the space of minutes, and leave subsequent generations with untreatable illnesses and ailments that cripple men, women and children unspeakably. The United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs reckons that there are around 22,000 nuclear weapons still in existence around the world. I support people like Jeremy Corbyn who believe that nuclear weapons have no place in a civilised world, due to the untold havoc and death that they could create, and I too call for their removal.

Trident is the UK’s nuclear fleet, nearing ‘retirement’ and needing replacement. There are disagreements over how much it will cost for replacement, though of course not everyone is interested in replacing it at all. The Scottish National Party said before the May election that scrapping Trident was the make-or-break factor for forming a coalition government with the Labour Party.

One would probably think that I want the government to ditch Trident. Unfortunately, here is where I agree, not with the Conservatives’ reasons, but for one reason that I don’t think has been championed much in the Trident debate.

Have you ever heard the phrase, looks like you’ve brought a knife to a gunfight? Well, this was similar to the mentality of the more powerful nations following the Second World War, especially during the Cold War. If your rival had an atom bomb, you had to get one too; if they had two, you had to have three. If they had a fleet of battleships, you had to have a fleet of superbattleships. The mentality extended across so many fields. As well as preparing one’s nation for the ever-imminent thermonuclear war, it also provided a way for a government to show its people how tough it was. But the most important notion was not just expressing the message “My gun is bigger than your gun” to rivals; it was the security that had to be achieved in the knowledge that a rival had greater destructive capability. One had to show that one’s opponent had no advantage – in fact, the advantage might be on one’s own side; but threats had to be countered and match.

Maybe I’m being very sweeping in my recollection of history. The same general principles apply on a more local level too. In our society, ordinary people are not allowed to have weapons. Supposing they were, and your neighbour purchased a rifle “for his own protection”, would you feel more unsafe? It’s quite likely you would. Your neighbour might be a benevolent, doddery old pensioner, but the fact is that he still owns something that could be used to shoot you. I bet that some people might buy a rifle themselves just because their neighbour has one. Soon, everyone has rifles, which terminates the benefit of having a rifle for one’s own protection. Superpowers like the USA don’t own nuclear weapons because they look attractive to tourists; it’s because other nations have nuclear weapons.

Putting my pathetic oversimplification of history aside, I’m sure everyone would agree that the USA, in a sudden display of kindness and peacefulness, will never disarm its nuclear weapons today, not until it has the promise from Russia and other nuclear nations that they’d get rid of theirs. But even this is unlikely. Imagine a gathering of villains agreeing to put all their pistols in one big rubbish bin for disposal – would they really all trust each to dispose of everything? Is there not the constant fear that one of the guests would keep hidden something hidden behind their back?

The Conservatives argue that a UK without nuclear weapons is a UK with compromised national security, but they refer to current affairs, not the principle I’m describing, as grounds for Trident’s renewal. Remember that the idea that, the minute we disarm our last nuclear weapon, the world will be plunged into thermonuclear war, is rubbish. If Jeremy Corbyn enters Downing Street and does not renew Trident, this is not a sign that the UK is defenceless – is it really likely that, even if we went to war, nuclear weapons would be used?

I do not believe that Putin’s Russia has the intention of waging thermonuclear war against anyone. In my mind, Vladimir Putin is a scavenger and an opportunist; he made use of the opportunity in Ukraine to claim the Crimea. Give Putin the opportunity and he will take it, but don’t expect him to claim territory or make war out of the blue. Even if Corbyn gets into No. 10 but doesn’t do anything toward nuclear disarmament, the chances of the breakout of world war, let alone thermonuclear war, are rather slim.

But we don’t possess nuclear weapons just in case Russia declares war; in this kind of politics, anyone who possesses nuclear weapons justifies our possession also. If the United Kingdom ditches its nuclear deterrent, we are throwing away our guns and turning up to the gunfight with knives. Despite just how unlikely that gunfight is to actually happen, the old Cold War attitude lives on: as long as you have a rifle in your shed then so will I.

Therefore, I am in favour of international, not national, disarmament of nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, the day that all nations agree to disarm their nuclear weapons and keep their word is a day I may not live to see.

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Jack Harvey

Jack Harvey

Alumni & Public Relations Officer at The Yorker
Comment and Politics Editor 2015/2016, Editor 2016/2017, Alumni & Public Relations Officer 2017/2018. History and Philosophy undergraduate, seeking postgraduate study in Philosophy.