Thursday, 1 October 2015

The French Connection

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.


Dan said...

Nuclear weapons is always an interesting debate, and I have to say nowadays I think my greatest emphasis is summed up by the word stability. At it's basic this covers the notion that we clearly don't want any more nukes, and we really clearly don't want extra countries coming into the mix and potentially shaking up what at you really want when nuclear weapons are in play - stability.

But stability, also means that countries who already have nuclear weapons keep them - as a country disarming on their own very much isn't promoting stability as it results in a different world mix, and no one knows how the world itself is going to change in the future.

I used to think, like most people I would imagine, that wouldn't it be great if we had never invented the things - but when I think about it now, I can't envisage the cold war period not resulting in a third world war, without the threat of mutually assured destruction. Given the technology available, even discounting nuclear weapons, that war alone would have been far more devastating than anything has experienced in the past, and so there a bit of me is forced to think - thank God we did invent them.

I'm not exactly thrilled by the threat they permanently pose, but I'm very much glad that they have at least forced many countries to act more responsibly because of them (and I'm not just talking about the ones without nukes, but very much the ones with nukes). So yeh, my latest thought is I very much don't want to rock the boat on the nuclear balance of power front - And yes if I was a representative of a country that gained the benefit of the (at times rocky) peace and not have to pay for them, I would certainly fee it has worked out pretty well for them.

Tomsk said...

I'm with Dan on stability but I think everyone can agree Woodcock is an arse. He's not unhinged though, simply following a twin agenda: (i) as an ultra-Blairite, seeking to remove Corbyn as soon as possible, and (ii) looking after his constituency which would undoubtedly suffer if there was no replacement for the Trident submarines.

That said I don't really buy the argument of your post, or at least could do with some clarification.

The only domain in which your points are relevant is one where we accept that nuclear weapons have a deterrent effect. Otherwise - if they are useless - it makes no difference at all whether the UK or France possess them.

So for the sake of following the argument let's assume they do act as a deterrent. You then argue that we should freeload on France's desire to build and maintain their own weapons as the UK will fall under their protection by default. This strikes me as a selfish and insular attitude: why should the French shoulder this important burden by themselves?

As for other European countries, the reality is they do have a nuclear deterrent as members of NATO. Some countries like Germany even have US-maintained nuclear weapons stationed on their soil ready to be deployed by German fighter aircraft. You have to wonder why they bother when the French have their own next door - and surely it's because every member of NATO has a duty to contribute to the overall security of the alliance, and not put all the responsibility onto France. (Not least as France is fiercely independent about its nuclear weapons to the point of opting out of the NATO nuclear planning group.)

The real debate then is whether we should shelter under the American nuclear umbrella ourselves. To an extent the line is already blurred anyway, as the Trident missiles are after all a US system. But to change the UK's posture further without any corresponding adjustment from other nuclear weapon states would in my view be against the principles of multilateral disarmament.