10 November 2012

Why does Britain have nuclear weapons?

There's a lot of talk these days about the possibility of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons. Britain's government is one of the voices adamant that it must not be allowed to do so. Oddly, no one has raised the obvious question, Why does the UK have nuclear weapons?

Iran, although insisting it has no intention of making a weapon, could make a good case for one. It lives in a dangerous neighbourhood. It is surrounded by nuclear-armed powers. Its two main antagonists, Israel and the United States, are both nuclear armed. And so on. It has solid justification for paranoia.

Britain, on the other hand, is surrounded by friends. Furthermore, it is good buddies with the most powerful nation in the world whose nuclear umbrella it would be welcome to shelter under.

One might argue further that Britain is a much more belligerent nation than Iran and is therefore less trustworthy with dangerous toys. Iran has not invaded another country in centuries. Britain has made a habit of it. Indeed, it invaded Iran twice in the 20th century and collaborated in destroying Iran's democracy in the 1950s. In 2003, under false pretences, it participated in the invasion of Iran's neighbour Iraq wreaking widespread death and destruction.

Britain currently has a Vanguard submarine drifting deep through the world's oceans armed with 40 nuclear-tipped Trident missiles, collectively possessing destructive power 300 times greater than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Although ordinarily only the prime minister has the authority to order a nuclear attack, if a submarine commander loses radio contact and suspects Britain has been destroyed, he can fire away. This scares me a hell of a lot more than the possibility Iran may make a weapon.

So, why does Britain have nuclear weapons at all? For an obvious reason, really—status. Tony Blair said as much. In his memoirs, he admitted he could see the "common sense and practical argument" against renewing the Trident system but, "In the final analysis I thought giving it up too big a downgrading of our status as a nation."

He might also have mentioned that the UK is a signatory of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, under which the nuclear powers are obliged to rid themselves of their nukes, something Britain is not doing. Perhaps we should be pointing our fingers at the violators of the Treaty, rather than those who, at least to date, have kept their word.

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