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Nuclear realpolitik

22 July 2016

THE axiom that a week is a long time in politics has been demonstrated repeatedly to the point of extravagance over the past month. Now that we have had a Government again — if not a coherent Opposition — for a little more than a week, the noble intentions expressed by Theresa May in her first speech as Prime Minister are beginning to be put to the test of practical decision-making in Parliament. Mrs May spoke of “a Union, not just between the nations of the United Kingdom, but between all of our citizens, whoever we are, and wherever we’re from”, and of fighting against “burning injustice”; but on Monday evening one of the first tests of her mettle was the Commons debate on Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent.

There was, in fact, as the vote by 472 to 112 for the renewal of Trident indicated, a large measure of agreement across the floor of the House, providing embarrassment only for the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who voted against with only 47 of his colleagues, but whose misgivings are shared by the majority party in Scotland. So it was that the Scottish Nationalist Member for East Lothian, George Kerevan, asked Mrs May the killer question: was she personally prepared to authorise a nuclear strike that could kill 100,000 innocent men, women, and children? To this Mrs May gave an unequivocal “Yes.” The whole point, she said, was that the country’s enemies needed to know that the UK would be prepared to use it.

If this proved more morally indigestible than her first speech as Prime Minister, it does not, of course, represent a decline from the level of her predecessors. The justifications Mrs May gave included the nuclear capability of Russia, and a disturbing increase in nuclear rhetoric from that country; the threat from countries such as North Korea that wished to acquire nuclear capability illegally; and the necessity of a deterrent to unforeseen nuclear threats, given the difficulty of redeveloping weapons once given up. To have three centres of decision-making within NATO meant that enemies were less likely to take their chance. While she was unwilling to gamble with millions of lives, she did, however, also seek to balance her hawkish stance with news of progress towards the long-term goal of multilateral disarmament.

It fell to Mr Corbyn to emphasise that the UK’s capacity to kill more than one million people had not deterred Islamic State and other evil influences on the international stage; and to point to the increasing cost of renewal, and the question of moral leadership in developing the non-proliferation treaty so as to move to what he called a “no-first-strike situation” and a “weapons of mass destruction-free zone across the Middle East”. He reproached the UK for not participating, with more than 130 other countries, in the UN’s current multilateral process towards a nuclear-ban treaty, and reiterated his own position that, unlike Mrs May, he would feel unable to press the nuclear button under any circumstances. His views have been widely echoed by church leaders. As things currently stand, however, it is Mrs May’s realpolitik that holds sway in the State, while the voice of the Church is not united against it. The question how realistic this realpolitik is may return in the light of Brexit.

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