Jeremy Corbyn is doing remarkable things for politics in the UK. He is engaging people who have previously felt they had no stake in the system, he is proposing dramatically different policies to those of all the major parties in recent years, and he is doing so in what appears to be an honest, straightforward way. However his statement that he would not use the nuclear deterrent poses a substantial problem, both to security and to parliamentary process.
As private citizens, we have a duty to make informed choices about our representation. I know that I favour disarmament, and I’m doubt I could ever make the decision to use nuclear weapons; in almost every conceivable situation use would be a war crime, and would be likely to result in far more death and destruction. However, I have no plans to become Prime Minister. I do not have to walk the fine line which Mr Corbyn must walk as leader of Her Majesty’s Official Opposition, and a possible future PM. I believe that, on this issue, Mr Corbyn has fallen off the tightrope.
The basic theory of nuclear deterrence is that threat of a hugely destructive second strike (or even first strike, in some limited circumstances) will prevent other nuclear powers attacking or threatening the UK. Our declaratory policy is such that we are committed to not using nuclear weapons against powers without WMDs. So the deterrent is only designed for a very limited set of situations. Crucially, in order for this deterrent to be effective, the threat must be convincing. This requires both the capability and willingness to use the weapons, and that willingness lies solely in the hands of the Prime Minister.
In that context, as long as the deterrent does its job, the Prime Minister, whoever that is, will never actually *need* to use such weapons. A plausible threat should do the job. Jeremy Corbyn’s statement, however, has made it clear to the world that, if he is ever elected, regardless of the technological capabilities, the United Kingdom will not have a nuclear deterrent. Now, I am all for Mr Corbyn coming out in favour of disarmament, but what he has done goes one step further than simply outlining his views. It would be entirely possible to make his opposition to Trident clear, in a way which lays the framework for a debate in the Labour Party and the United Kingdom as a whole, but which leaves his willingness to use the deterrent ambiguous. He could be personally committed to never using the deterrent, even in the very limited set of situations laid out by the UK’s declaratory policy, whilst still leaving an effective deterrent.
Instead, Mr Corbyn has declared that, for whatever time he might spend as PM, we will not have a deterrent, regardless of the security landscape. North Korea could take a break from reality and launch nuclear weapons against a commonwealth state like Malaysia and we would not respond. Russia could destroy the English speaking world and we would not take counter-measures. Argentina could nuke the Falklands and we would have to let them. These are of course extreme, implausible situations but they serve to illustrate a point. A blanket refusal to ever countenance the use of Nuclear Weapons is unhelpful for as long as the wider world, our allies and dependents, expect us to play a role as a nuclear power in their defence.
His statement also undermines parliamentary process and the will of the electorate. At present, it is far from clear whether the Labour Party as a whole, let alone the population of the United Kingdom, favours renewal of the deterrent. It is simply a debate which we have not had, because successive major parties have all stood in favour of it. As an avowed anti-nuclear campaigner, Jeremy Corbyn could have played a key role in allowing his party to have an informed debate. Instead, however, he has declared his stance before the party has formulated theirs.
Whilst this can be seen as example of the open, honest politics Jeremy Corbyn favours, the upshot of his comments is to undermine the freedom of the party to reach a decision. Everything else he said in the relevant BBC interview was setting out a clear argument in favour of disarmament, and one that should be listened to, however his categorical comments undercut those arguments. Even if the party as a whole comes out in support of the nuclear deterrent, Jeremy Corbyn will not use it, meaning that he could, potentially, ignore the will of his party.
Sometimes, it is useful to leave certain things unsaid.