John Woodcock's unhinged lunacy reminded me of an old argument I had with various friends of t'blog about the benefits or otherwise of abandoning Trident. So, since I'm pissed off about it all over again, let's go over the key facts once more.
First of all, the terror of a nuclear holocaust is, at least these days, a peculiarly British obsession. I've been lucky enough through my job to visit many European countries and attend conferences with people from many more. At this point there's barely a country in Europe from which I've not met someone with whom I've sat down and had dinner or a drink (I'm still searching for an Andorran). Whilst recognising entirely that these people have almost exclusively been mathematical academics, and thus my experiences are heavily weighted towards very smart people who understand how to think logically, the general feeling I picked up is that those who live in countries without nuclear weapons (that would be around 96% of the states fully in Europe) are absolutely thrilled that it's not their problem. They see the presence of nuclear weapons as an accident waiting to happen at best and a magnet for terrorist attacks at worst. We may be desperate to hold on to our nukes, but it is not the case that other countries are desperate to acquire them. They don't fear a nuclear war; they fear a nuclear accident.
"Butwhy should they fear the bomb," goes the argument "When they can rely on us to do the protecting for them?" Well, first of all, I'm not particularly convinced countries like Lithuania or Serbia sleep soundly in their beds certain that Western Europe will have their back come the nuclear squalls - and I guarantee you whatever the many reasons Putin had for not nuking the western Ukraine over the Crimea, What Would David Cameron Do? wasn't anywhere on the list - but leaving that aside, the immediate response to that question is why we can't enjoy that same protection? If Germany doesn't need to worry about being nuked so long as someone in Europe has the deterrent, why don't we take advantage of that same logic?
The answer, so far as I can see, is simple: it's because that someone would be the French.
The basic inbuilt distrust of our Gallic neighbours is of course hardwired into vast swathes of the British public. At its best, this affects our discourse through the spoken concern that once we get rid of our nukes, those feckless Frenchies will as well, leaving all of Europe as unprotected as say, South America, or Africa, (or even Australasia, depending on what you think the likelihood is of the UK actually going to nuclear war to protect New Zealand). Obviously the glowing radioactive remains of those continents testify to how dangerous such a a course of action would be. But even beyond my facetiousness, the argument fails to persuade because there's no coherence to it. What, keeping nuclear missiles in Europe is so unquestionably necessary for basic survival we can't afford to get rid of a fraction of them in case it starts a trend? You might as well say we have to eat six meals a day because if we busted ourselves down to three we might start thinking about the benefits of a starvation diet. The argument confuses a positive feedback cycle for a negative one. It's particularly odd seeing people buy into the French stereotype of feckless unreliability whilst ignoring the equally strong stereotype of unbearable French arrogance. Why assume the French would give up their weapons when they could use them to lord it over an entire continent, giggling as they watched their own breed of neoliberal hawks strut around calling themselves "la dernière défense pour l'Europe"? Because, as always, stereotypes are only useful rhetorical tools as long as they are convenient.
Anyway, that's the best form of the argument dealt with. The alternative form is that we can trust the French to keep their missiles, but not to use them (or threaten to use them, which is all it would really take) in response to a nuclear threat on the UK.
It is almost impossible to state how ridiculous this is. Even the most rabid anti-Gallic xenophobic Rosbeef should be able to process the fact that the UK is simply too close to Franch geographically for them to ever allow a nuclear strike on British soil.
Back in 1986, the Chernobyl nuclear plant in modern-day Ukraine exploded, causing an unprecedented level of nuclear fallout at the time, something in the range of 400 Hiroshima bombs. The effects on Ukraine were catastrophic, but there was plenty to panic about across the entire continent. Indeed, the level of radioactive material that swept into France as a result of the disaster was so great the government felt compelled to cover it up from its own people. This from a single disaster, of a degree of power equal to less than one thirtieth of some of the nuclear weapons the US has in active service, that happened some 1500 miles from Paris.
London in constrast is less than 300 miles from Paris. In simple terms of distance, and depending on wind direction, it would be more harmful to Paris to drop an ICBM on London than on Marseilles. And speaking of difference and effect, if we make use of the inverse square law to calculate dispersion of radioactive materials (which is actually low-balling things, but never mind), do you know how many Hiroshima fallouts in London Paris would consider equivalent to 400 in northern Ukraine?
Sixteen Hiroshimas. Whilst accepting that radioactive fallout and destructive capability are not the same, that's not even equal to just one of our most powerful Trident missiles. A single one of our own larger nukes goes off by accident and Paris has the same headache as Chernobyl caused them. Now consider the utter devastation a "nuclear holocaust"of the kind Woodcock claims to be threatening about engulfing Britain, and try to tell me the French would greet that with a shrug of their shoulders.
Even this doesn't seem to work as a counter, though, because we're not arguing with people who think our need for Trident is plausible, simply that it can't be proved entirely non-existent. Nuclear war could kick off. Britain (well, who are we kidding, England) could be targeted. The French could just munch cheese and quaff wine and mumble "boff" as their neighbour to the west burns. But the problem with these kind of argument strings - we need a deterrent in case a nuclear war starts, and were caught up on it, and those who literally couldn't survive a sustained bombing of our country suddenly forget the fact - is that they ignore probability entirely on the grounds that "it isn't literally impossible". Well, no, it isn't. But once your definition of something we must spend billions on acting to prevent is that it is something that at least theoretically could happen, you have to accept a need to defend against every scenario, no matter how implausible. Maybe the nuclear war will kick off whilst the home counties are in the grips of a plague, so we need to make sure we have sufficient nukes in say, Cornwall and Cumbria to defend us all. But maybe Cornwall and Cumbria - AKA "The West Coast Quislings" have taken advantage of the plague to rebel, so we'll need to keep enough missiles in plague-free loyalist Hull to defend the entire island for when the crown finally regains control. There are any number of fantastical scenarios that are still technically possible that I could add on to the argument for keeping Trident, and by their own logic supporters of the system would have to sign off on them too. I'm not saying it's impossible to come up with a "probability of catastrophe" that would include nuclear war but not epidemic and revolution, but I don't see anyone actually trying to do that.
And so we continue pumping money into a system no-one can prove we're ever likely to need and which none of its defenders can claim is actually what we'll need if push ever comes to mushroom cloud, and meanwhile our underfunding of the health service or the welfare state is literally killing people. You might as well cut out people's hearts to wear as brooches in case they scare werewolves away as let people die alone and abandoned because you're worried someone's going to nuke your village green.
We don't need Trident. We can't afford Trident, for all that cutting it wouldn't make a colossal difference to our finances. And anyone who's objecting because of a mistrust of the French should stop and think how funny it would be to make them shoulder the full cost of running a nuclear deterrent whilst we fill our missile silos with cash to be spent on keeping people alive for real, rather than in a second-rate Tom Clancy hypothetical.