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Arms consensus

Alistair Burnett Alistair Burnett | 14:17 UK time, Friday, 8 December 2006

If the people who contribute to The World Tonight's Listener Debate are anything to go by, most of our listeners are very doubtful of the wisdom of the government's decision this week to renew Britain's nuclear weapons system, Trident.

The World TonightPolls on the issue have suggested the general public are more sanguine about the government's plans, and over the next few months there will be consultation and then a vote in Parliament. Although, with the main parties all generally in favour of retaining a nuclear capability, it seems unlikely our listeners will be happy with the outcome of this process.

My colleague Nick Robinson blogged earlier this week on the way the government has said it wants to take this decision in an open and transparent manner, so I won't add any more to that.

But listening to the former head of the British Army, General Sir Michael Jackson, on the Today programme on Thursday, I was struck by the lack of consensus in the armed forces on the need for Britain to have nuclear weapons.

Gen Jackson argued that the uncertain nature of future threats means we should keep our nukes. Last Friday on The World Tonight, we spoke to the former head of ordnance for the army, General Sir Hugh Beach, who told us that the money should be spent on making the armed forces fit to face the threats we know about and face now.

In the post-Cold War world, our government has used our armed forces more and more to intervene abroad to stabilise countries, as in Sierra Leone; or to stop a state from attacking its own citizens, as in Serbia; or to disarm and remake a state our government see as hostile to our interests, as in Afghanistan and Iraq. General Beach argued that the armed forces do not have enough of the right equipment to do these things and the money that is spent on strategic nuclear weapons would be better spent on such things as helicopters and ground attack aircraft.

So the military men seem as divided as the public and politicians on this one which makes reflecting the various views in this debate a particular challenge.

As for our listener who asked why Britain has a 'strategic nuclear deterrent' while other countries have 'weapons of mass destruction' that's another area where consensus is difficult to find...


  • 1.
  • At 03:41 PM on 08 Dec 2006,
  • George Shaw wrote:

"If the people who contribute to The World Tonight's Listener Debate are anything to go by, most of our listeners are very doubtful of the wisdom of the government's decision this week to renew Britain's nuclear weapons system, Trident. "

As there is such a difference between politicians and the public, why isn't there a referendum on this?

  • 2.
  • At 03:50 PM on 08 Dec 2006,
  • J Westerman wrote:

Our military leaders have not been notable for their common-sense over the last few months.
Ask anyone who experienced WW2, especially 1940 to 1942. I think that they will say that we need the most effective deterrent available.
It is too late when the enemy is performing a victory march through your capital city, as the French found out - remember?

  • 3.
  • At 05:08 PM on 08 Dec 2006,
  • NP wrote:

I remain unconvinced of the need for an independent nuclear deterrent. For one, it's highly unlikely we could ever use it without the White House's say-so (whoever the incumbent of either the White House or Downing St). For another, it's unlikely that any of the current pretenders to nuke-hood would have sufficiently long range missiles to reach us (N.Korea might be able to reach Seoul, but certainly can't reach Japan).

The majority of the military efforts we are likely to face in the 21st century are going to be peacekeeping exercises or rapid reaction attacks along the lines of Afghanistan or Iraq. These rely on aerial superiority and high quality intelligence - and the £25bn-plus that would be wasted on Trident Reloaded would be better spent on improving conventional forces and tactical weapons, such as guns that fire properly, enough armour, and technological advances such as UAV surveillance.

  • 4.
  • At 07:11 PM on 08 Dec 2006,
  • Aaron McKenna wrote:

It’s an insurance policy… albeit not quite like your average house insurance. It’s a long term thing – I’m sure we all doubt ourselves in forking over hundreds or thousands in insurance payments every year, but when some tornado lands on your house or – more likely – somebody breaks in and makes off with everything under the Christmas (winter?) tree, well it’s appreciated then.

Trident, and all nuclear weapons, are long term insurance policies – 20 to 30 years, in this case. The Nazi’s came to power in 1933 and exactly ten years later their troops were in Stalingrad, having overcome Western Europe almost out of nowhere. Over night a country can become dangerous to you.

Another thing I noted in this whole debate was the idea that “America will help us, surely?” There are many points I could argue against this policy, but the most contemporary and resonent one, I would suspect, would be that since Iraq the majority of Britons have been telling the government not to follow America blindly. If Britain depends on the US for its national defence then I daresay that the option of making our own minds up will be moot. Nuclear weapons are currency. The difference between Britain and Iran or North Korea having nuclear weapons is that Britain is one of the worlds oldest democracies, which doesn’t have the espoused national intention of wiping several other countries off the face of the earth.

I really wish people would stop playing for cheap points in debates such as this. Asking why North Korea or Iran shouldn’t have a God Given right to nuclear weapons because we do is like asking what right we had to de-nazify Germany after the war.

  • 5.
  • At 09:21 PM on 08 Dec 2006,
  • cairo wrote:

How can we believe it when they say we have such and such amount of nuclear weapons? When did people start buy everything the Governement tells them?

Personally, I know they will neer give it up. Whichever western nation you pick.

If one nation is allowed nuclear weapons, ALL nations should be allowed them.
Next to the US/UK, Israel has the most nuclear weapons in the world. And it's arab neighbors aren't allowed any. Oh arabs cant be trusted, right. This makes them furious. But it doesnt matter as long they dont have nukes. Keep thinking that.

  • 6.
  • At 08:55 PM on 09 Dec 2006,
  • anon wrote:

"As for our listener who asked why Britain has a 'strategic nuclear deterrent' while other countries have 'weapons of mass destruction' that's another area where consensus is difficult to find..."

Let me enlighten your moral equivalence believing listener. Britain does not have nuclear weapons to attack other countries. It has them as a deterrent against attack. Countries like Saddam's Iraq have chemical/biological weapons to use offensively against other countries & their own people. If you cannot tell the difference and continue to insist on lumping countries like Britain, the US and Israel together with the likes of North Korea, Syria and Iran then I feel sorry for you. You are the kind of person who would have seen no difference between Hitler's Germany and Britain/USA in WW2.

  • 7.
  • At 02:08 AM on 11 Dec 2006,
  • John B Dick wrote:

# 1. ... why isn't there a referendum on this?

My bet is that there will be a referendum, after the next election for the Scottish parliament returns a majority for the three pro-independence and anti-Trident parties. The referendum will be on independence, but Trident will be the tipping point. If Trident is replaced, it won't be in Scottish waters.

There are other "not in my name" issues too.

The Scottish Labour party may split, and the pro-Trident, pro-Union element wither after independence.
The Conservatives have even now a majority of the popular vote in England and can look forward to an early return to power. Gordon Brown and the other Labour MP's from Scottish constituencies will be out of a job.

How can TB be so short sighted that he can risk all that? Only because he is surrounded by people who reinforce his belief that he can persuade not only the parliamentary Labour party, but also the electorate, of almost anything he wants to. Do his backbenchers think the same way? Surely not. Are they all spineless and unprincipled? Maybe some are but there is bound to be friction.

The Conservatives in England and the SNP in Scotland don't need to exert themselves. The less they say about any other topic than Trident and the undemocratic bias of this administration the better for them.

Professor John Curtice reckons that one of only three enduring changes of the Thatcher governments is that Scots were persuaded of the merits of devolution. Tony Blair will do more in the next six months to bring about Scottish independence than the SNP has managed to do in two generations.

  • 8.
  • At 11:22 AM on 11 Dec 2006,
  • Sam wrote:


you sound like an American (i apologise if your not)

But like everything it really does depends on your point of view. Nothing is black and white. The Americans for instance had strong support for Adolf Hitler during World War 2 and it was only Pearl Harbour that made them finally decide to support the British.

Iran has every right to have nulcear weapons as do we. They have no more reason to use them than we have. Same goes for the Chinese, in what way exactly in your scewed little world is China any different or 'better' than Iran? Did you see the BBC story showing footage of Chinese soldiers shooting Tibetan travellers like dogs? Yet they have nukes and America the UK and the rest of europe treat them like old friends.

As for Israel? Well yes you are right its entirely unfair to compare them to Iran afterall Iran doesn't currently occupy somones elses country enforcing a form of aparthied the way the Israelies do. So for me Israel having nukes is far more of a problem. And in fact they should be forcably disarmed.

  • 9.
  • At 11:47 AM on 11 Dec 2006,
  • J Westerman wrote:

Re 3 Anon 09 Dec 2006.

Thank you “anon”. More forcibly than I would have put it but precisely to the point.
There are far too many of these woolly thinkers going uncorrected. In my opinion they are a danger to the country.

  • 10.
  • At 01:00 PM on 11 Dec 2006,
  • Themos Tsikas wrote:

"Britain does not have nuclear weapons to attack other countries."

It's true that Britain has not used nuclear weapons. It's also true that Britain has attacked other countries. Both of these are true of Iraq, as well.

As for chemical weapons, Britain used them long before Iraq did.

Clearly, the words used to describe nuclear weapons (how about "strategic deterrents of mass destruction") cannot have the significance that anon asserted.

The point about deterrence that is often missed is that it needs to be credible and to be credible it must address threats at all conceivable levels from slight provocations to outright invasions. Britain with Trident can only deter the (most unlikely) threats at the large end of the scale but still leaves gaping holes in the middle. An adversary would take ten seconds to figure this out and match the provocation to the "sweet spot". In short, Britain is at risk of becoming like a policeman on a troubled estate, armed with a stick and 100 tons of Semtex.

Britain's only hope for full-spectrum deterrence is to forge alliances that will cover the all too many gaps, and that means a new and different doctrine and alignment from the one practised for about a hundred years.

  • 11.
  • At 01:14 PM on 11 Dec 2006,
  • peter wrote:

"Next to the US/UK, Israel has the most nuclear weapons in the world. And it's arab neighbors aren't allowed any"

Britain has about 200 warheads, France 300, Israel between 100-200, China several thousand, the US 30,000 & Russia 40,000. India and Pakistan have a handful each.

I note you also choose to ignore that Israel's neighbours outnumber her 30 to 1 in conventional forces.

  • 12.
  • At 06:25 PM on 11 Dec 2006,
  • Ally wrote:

Let's see...the world's running out of oil and we've actually got some.

Guess we can get rid of Trident and trust America to do the right thing then....errr....

OK, maybe not. Sign me up for the next batch. And make sure we can fire without the Yanks' say-so.

  • 13.
  • At 11:28 AM on 12 Dec 2006,
  • Themos Tsikas wrote:

"Israel's neighbours outnumber her 30 to 1 in conventional forces."

A good argument. As Robert Gates said recently,

"I think that they would see it in the first instance as a deterrent. They are surrounded by powers with nuclear weapons -- Pakistan to their east, the Russians to the north, the Israelis to the west, and us in the Persian Gulf"

He was talking about Iran, of course, but the argument is the same.

  • 14.
  • At 03:53 PM on 12 Dec 2006,
  • Joe wrote:

In response to Susan,
At least in Israel you are allowed to have a different point of view, Internet access is not restricted unlike that shining star of democracy called Iran.
As for your comment about 'anon' being American so what, what does it matter to you?.
You seem very keen to lecture against the US and Israel, unfortunately you did not balance your comments with some human rights issues that occur right across the religious divide.
I am sure that you would agree that no country is better than any other. it is the Government of that country which makes it good or bad, and perhaps you should accept that what is classed as good or bad is open to whatever interpretation you wish to make depending on your viewpoint.
For every valid point you make another just as valid point can be made to show why you are wrong.
Life is not as easy as making certain countries your pariahs and ignoring shortcomings in countries which you find attractive to your own politics.
Also making rude comments as you did to a previous blogger hardly help you in your attempt to be constructive.
As for Nuclear weapons, it is a very emotive topic and is not something that can be resolved by 'forcibly disarming Israel', as I am sure you would agree you would have to disarm about another 20 countries and perhaps also any other countries which have chemical weapons etc.
As I told you earlier life is not easy and is full of Hobson choices...get used to it and stop attacking other peoples valid opinions..

  • 15.
  • At 08:22 PM on 12 Dec 2006,
  • Mark wrote:

Since Britain is America's poodle, I think a Congressional committee should be set up to study the matter and make a recommendation to President Bush. When we reach a consensus, we'll just jerk Britain's leash and they will bark to our tune. The American patriot Thomas Payne said in his pamphlet "Common Sense" that it was illogical for an island to rule a continent. He never said anything about the inverse. We'll let you know once we've decided.

  • 16.
  • At 09:14 PM on 12 Dec 2006,
  • Chloe wrote:

To Joe,

I totally agree with your sentiments, I hope more rational people than Susan will debate this topic.
Lets hope that people stop judging other people on what Religion they are,and concentrate on 'getting on with life'.

  • 17.
  • At 05:43 AM on 13 Dec 2006,
  • Jorge Marques wrote:

The war in Iraq and Afghanistan is costing the US over 350 million dollars and the UK over 8 billion pounds. There is a 6.2 billion pounds programme to install a computer system at the NHS. How does the NHS 547 million deficit compare to this? Are politicians ever to be made accountable over public spending, and to whom is all this money being paid? Shouldn't a special "war tax" be levied on those who profit from the war, namely, shareholders? And speaking of computer systems, how come a computer system can cost almost as much as the war? I have another example in my own country (Portugal): the sole computering expenses of Hospital administration last year were greater than the total expenses (pensions included) of the National pension scheme. Shouldn't the media keep readers informed of these situations? Can a vote ever change this?

  • 18.
  • At 04:57 PM on 13 Dec 2006,
  • J Westerman wrote:

Re Mark 15 12 Dec 2006 “America's poodle”

I am not certain whether he intends to be humorous, provocative or just irresponsible. I am certain there is more than enough anti-American sentiment at the moment and that this is not the time to add to it.
There are likely to be difficult times ahead.

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