This article was originally written for BASIC International’s Next Gen Shapers programme. For more information, and to see the article in its original context, visit

On October 27th, BASIC hosted a roundtable event to discuss the role of Nuclear Weapons in UK defence policy, just a month before the publication of the UK’s 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR). The event brought together students and young professionals. Paul Ingram, executive director of BASIC, and Heather Williams, MacArthur Fellow, Centre for Science and Security Studies, King’s College London, led off the discussion, with Rachel Staley Grant of BASIC moderating.

Heather Williams first set out some context. Governmental commitment to spending 2% of GDP on defence means the impending SDSR is likely to focus far more on policy than its austerity-driven predecessor. The ‘Main Gate’ decision on the Trident successor programme is expected to be taken in early 2016 and will almost certainly result in like-for-like replacement (estimated to cost £80-100bn over its lifespan) due to political lock-in. Meanwhile Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader has ensured nuclear policy is a live issue for his party, and internationally Russian sabre rattling is stoking fears of a new Cold War. All this means that there is now a rare opportunity to directly shape policy for the next thirty years, on matters all too often overlooked.

Heather then highlighted some key issues. Drawing on experience at the US Department of Defence and speaking from a pro-Trident perspective, she questioned the UK’s apparent insecurity with regards to the special relationship with the USA, and claimed that this was viewed with some bemusement across the Atlantic. The need to maintain this bond is often cited as a reason for Trident renewal. Secondly, Heather observed a degree of British unwillingness to establish a long-term nuclear strategy, suggesting a favoured policy of ‘muddling through’. Thirdly, she emphasised the importance of values; given the potential destructive power of nuclear weapons, we must give serious thought to what we are defending.

Paul Ingram’s responses provided a jumping off point on several issues. Paul identified an imbalance in the Special Relationship – the British have long lost their global empire, and their nuclear contribution is seen in some British circles as the principle substantial contribution they make to the relationship. Yet, the tendency towards self-doubt remains, damaging cooperation. The burden placed on the nuclear dimension also encourages unintended complacency in other areas (for example, Downing St. can ignore the strategic consequences of a close economic dependency on China). How can our security policy counter the failure of nuclear burden sharing in securing this key relationship; should another form of cooperation receive attention?

Another issue highlighted by Paul and discussed at length was the subordination of nuclear policy to political concerns. Jeremy Corbyn’s anti-nuclear rhetoric benefits his distinctive, anti-establishment identity which won him the Labour leadership. The SNP can use renewal as evidence of the disconnect between Westminster and Scotland – they oppose Trident, yet the Vanguard submarines are based on the Clyde. It is likely that the SNP will want to postpone any decision for as long as possible in order to use it as leverage against Westminster. The Conservatives, meanwhile, can present Corbyn’s Labour as placing ideology above national security, and thus unfit for office. As such, therefore, all parties have an interest in a shallow proxy debate, rather than any real policy development. The use of nuclear debates for political capital suggests the actual outcome is unimportant, and goes some way to explaining the ‘strategy of muddling through’.

Treating nuclear policy as a political football also damages more substantive discussion. Firstly, voters are offered an unrepresentative, monochromatic choice between like-for-like renewal, presented as the only pragmatic option, and unilateral disarmament, supposedly the only moral choice. Secondly, credible arguments across the spectrum are undermined. For example, if opposing Trident becomes seen as the preserve of the ideological left, there is no space for arguments for disarmament from a security minded middle ground.

Heather noted that the alternative to simplistic black and white arguments has other problems. Elite, detail heavy discussion – the preserve of an epistemic community – alienates the average interested party and curtails wider national discussion. A balance needs to be struck between the extremes.

Exploring this theme of nuanced debate, the group shied away from pejorative ‘good’ and ‘bad’ descriptors for nuclear states, turning instead towards a topic of previous BASIC round tables – responsible nuclear armed states. Developing a responsible nuclear strategy requires consideration of numerous factors, going beyond simple adherence to the NPT and engaging the public in substantive policy debates.

Russia was cited as having demonstrated irresponsible behaviour with the use of nuclear sabre rattling, as it continues to position itself against NATO in Syria, and moves nuclear missiles towards its own borders whilst conflict in Ukraine continues. Conversely, the inexorable development of technologies for strategic advantage that could destabilise strategic balances (such as missile defence and prompt global strike), could also be seen as irresponsible.

If Russia is irresponsible, what is responsible? Security was, unsurprisingly seen as the core of any nuclear weapons policy, but as Heather suggested at the outset, careful thought needs to be given to what we defend at what cost. The Humanitarian Initiative, a state and NGO led campaign that is highlighting humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons, was cited as offering a forum to forge a vision of an ethical nuclear weapons state. Stemming from this Initiative is the  ‘Austria Pledge’, calling for legal mechanisms banning nuclear weapons (endorsed by 121 nations to date and recently adopted by the UN disarmament and international security committee). Heather said she believes this to be distracting attention from more realistic discussion of humanitarian nuclear policy, which could be led by nuclear weapon states, especially the USA. Some questioned the value and utility of the proposed ban treaty, and such an initiative being driven by principles and values; South Africa is the clearest example of a state abandoning nuclear weapons on principle, but similar arguments have not resonated well with current nuclear armed states.

Questions were also raised as to the importance of the security of other states. The UK insists on an independent nuclear deterrent, but extended deterrence has long played a role in American nuclear policy. Which of these policies is more responsible? If the former, extended deterrence should cease to play a role in American policy, if the latter, the UK’s independent nuclear deterrent could be eliminated. This might actually strengthen the special relationship, as it would prove that the UK trusts US nuclear guarantees, and focus limited resources on capabilities of greater value to the Alliance.

Political manoeuvring has already been dismissed as clearly irresponsible. Similarly, whilst economic policy is a factor in many decisions, linking disarmament closely to cost-cutting could unwittingly re-enforce the perception of nuclear weapons as prestige projects, encouraging proliferation among rising powers. Furthering non-proliferation should be a factor in responsible policy, yet this stands at odds with the very notion of deterrence. Theoretically, we could maintain a deterrent whilst pursing multilateral disarmament, but the UK has never itself reduced its arms through a multilateral agreement.

The overall conclusion seemed to be that the UK at present lacks a clear nuclear policy, and it is unlikely that one will be outlined in the forthcoming SDSR. Whilst this may appear politically prudent, it is not the action of a responsible nuclear armed state. A nuanced but accessible national debate is needed. It is the nature of this debate, and the resultant responsible policy which needs to be established.

Some questions to consider further:

  • How do we address the lack of nuance and frequent attempts to muddy the waters of nuclear policy discussion?
  • What do we value enough to justify possessing and using nuclear weapons?
  • What is a responsible strategy – what factors inform it?
  • How can we reinforce international partnerships without relying on nuclear burden sharing?
  • Will we have such a debate, or will the SDSR simply come out fully formed, defining nuclear policy for the next generation?

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