The Trident debate: a brief introduction to the nuclear deterrent

Nuclear weapons have a unique ability to divide people. Specifically, they have the ability to divide people into lots of much-smaller bits of people. And when it comes to the renewal of the UK’s nuclear weapons systems, opinion is split much the same way as the atom was first split a century ago – violently, recklessly, and with no-one really thinking too hard about the consequences.

In Westminster, the Conservatives and a significant proportion of the Labour party have voted in favour of replacing the submarines that carry the UK’s Trident nukes, arguing that giving up our weapons would be like bringing a knife to a gun fight. The SNP, Plaid Cwmry and the remainder of the Labour party, including Jeremy Corbyn, oppose renewing the nuclear subs. They say that keeping nukes is more like bringing a tiger to a gunfight. Expensive, unnecessary, and guaranteed to end up with everybody dead.

Corbyn has even said that if he were Prime Minister he would never use nukes, even in self-defence. This makes some sense – the only time he might use them would be if we were all effectively dead anyway – but it slightly undermines the concept of a deterrent. It’d be like telling a naughty child “If you don’t behave right now, I swear I will do ABSOLUTELY NOTHING!”

Renewing Trident could now cost anything from 40bn to £205bn – campaigners say this money could pay for 120 hospitals and 150,000 new nurses, or 1.5m affordable homes. Alternatively, if we wanted a genuine deterrent to foreign powers, we could spend the money on a magnificent 800-metre high golden statue of a nude and priapic Michael Gove to stand proudly on the white cliffs of Dover.

Cost has been an issue from the beginning of the British nuclear programme. In the early 1950s, rationing was still in effect in the UK, and some questioned how we could justify spending vast sums of public money on doomsday weapons we never intended to use, at a time when citizens were queuing in the streets for food. Of course, everything is completely different today.

Safety of nuclear weapons is another concern, after decades of fires, crashes and dropped clangers. Barely a week seems to have gone by in the 1950s without some hapless GI wheeling a city-incinerating missile to a plane while whistling the Laurel and Hardy theme tune in giddy anticipation of some top-notch slapstick.

In the early days, the computers controlling global nuclear stockpiles had slightly less processing power than a modern-day electric toothbrush. Likewise, the soldiers guarding the warheads also seem to have had slightly less common sense than a modern-day electric toothbrush.

The UK no longer conducts nuclear testing, after controversial early British nuclear experiments in Australia threw up large amounts of radioactive dust. This was the only time in history that Australians were ever unhappy after welcoming a team of Englishmen for a series of tests and getting to keep the ashes afterwards.

Today, the UK’s nuclear threat is submarine-based, making it hard for enemies to detect or target our weapons. In fact, they are so difficult to detect that in 2009 a British nuclear-armed submarine crashed into a French one in the middle of the Atlantic. The government described this as an isolated incident and, to be fair, you can’t get much more isolated than floating around in the middle of an empty ocean and still managing to crash into something else that’s also carrying nuclear warheads.

Despite incidents like this, the navy are seen as reliable custodians for our nuclear arsenal. Because if we must amass world-destroying weapons, who could be better emotionally suited to control them than someone trapped for months in a claustrophobic tin can, traversing a hostile environment without contact from the outside world? What could possibly go wrong?

Bringing us back to the present, the main purpose of today’s vote was not really about a debate. It was about embarrassing an unstable Labour party on the verge of meltdown.

The Conservatives are taking a leaf out of Ernest Rutherford’s book from a century ago. By firing a stream of charged emotions at a wafer-thin sheet of consensus, they hope to successfully split the Labour party. The chain reaction could drastically alter the political environment, and the poisonous fallout could take years to clean up.

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