Nuclear weapons good, chemical weapons bad
As Jeremy Corbyn recently discovered, you cannot expect to be taken seriously in British politics if you are not prepared to use nuclear weapons. The hail of abuse and incredulity, and his own senior colleagues' scramble to distance themselves, drum-home the principle: A responsible leader must rule out nothing in the defence of their people, their homeland. When it comes to defence of the nation, all rules are off.
The odd thing, however, is that they don’t and can’t really mean this. There exist plenty of weapons which they themselves would rule out, at least if they don’t want to end up in The Hague. Chemical weapons for one. If a responsible leader is one who would truly stop at nothing, then that would include chemicals. I’m sure our journalist-philosophers can assist by conjuring ludicrous scenarios wherein the judicious state-use of Sarin saves the inhabitants of London from certain death – heaven knows, they manage it often enough with nuclear weapons.
Perhaps as part of Laura Kuenssberg’s next interview with David Cameron, or indeed Hillary Benn, she can press them to confirm whether or not there are any circumstances in which they would be prepared to use nerve gas? She can use the exact same lines of incredulous hectoring that she used on Corbyn:
“So yes or no, you would never push the chemical button?”
“And that’s more important than the protection of this country?”
“Do you acknowledge that there is a risk that it looks to voters that you would put your own principles ahead of the protection of this country?”
No doubt Kuenssberg would dismiss this argument as irrelevant, as chemical weapons are already illegal. We have signed an international treaty saying that we won’t use them, or even threaten to use them. But that only begs the question, why not nuclear too? And that is Corbyn’s point – the same rules should apply to nuclear as to chemical. They should be stuck in the same ‘under no circumstances’ box that already exists for chemical weapons, biological weapons, rape as a weapon. And note that we have unilaterally rejected chemical weapons. We are fully aware that some other states (more evil than our own) still possess them. But we don’t use that as an excuse not to uphold the ban on ourselves. With chemical weapons we are proud to lead by example.
In truth, Kuenssberg’s hope was to identify a moral gulf between Corbyn and those politicians more to her taste: Whereas Cameron and the Blairites would do anything to protect us, Corbyn is prepared to endanger us to protect his own principles. But the ban on chemical weapons proves that Cameron has his limits too. It’s not that he doesn’t draw a line, it’s just that he draws it in a different place, still far short of ‘anything goes’.
So why draw a line before chemical but beyond nuclear? Surely not for humanitarian reasons. The consequences of a chemical attack are a gasping, writhing, twitching, burning, agonising death. The consequences of a nuclear attack are instant bodily vaporisation (for the lucky ones) plus every conceivable range of fatal and non-fatal burn, plus a decades-long legacy of birth defects and cancer. Maybe it’s my moral naivety, but I can’t see much to choose between them. However for the British political establishment they are moral binary opposites: If you threaten to use the former you are clearly a monster, and can expect a visit from the RAF. But if you refuse to use the latter you are a dangerous idealist who puts their principles before the safety of their people.
To account for this distinction, some less than moral reasons spring to mind. Firstly, as the US is the only country to have actually employed nuclear weapons, ipso facto such weapons cannot be fundamentally immoral. Indeed there’s no reason to doubt that if the slaughter in Hiroshima and Nagasaki had been chemical rather than nuclear those currently defending nuclear would be singing a different song. Establishment historians and cab drivers alike would be informing their captive audiences that “The chemical attacks on Japan actually saved lives, they brought the war to a close more swiftly.” I can hear Margaret Thatcher booming, “Mr Day! Sarin has kept peace in Europe for forty years.”
Another reason is national vanity and prestige. Much as no patriot wants to be party to the break-up of the union or the dissolution of the monarchy, they get nauseas at the thought of losing of our ‘independent nuclear deterrent’ (an Orwellian title if there ever was one.) So what if we can’t afford it? So what if it protects us against nothing, and has no conceivable use other than as a minor contribution to a global holocaust? It matters because it makes us great, a world power.
Aside from the childishness of this desire, a moment’s reflection reveals that this is no way to meet it. We only need ask ourselves, do we respect the French more because they have nuclear weapons? Do we hold them in awe over their arms cache, rather than their cooking? I don’t recall anyone saying so.
In truth no other country gives a damn whether or not the British waste their taxes on WMD. If anything it probably serves to confirm our reputation as self-deluding post-imperialists. Because of course, aside from the similarly self-deluding post-imperialist French, no other country in Europe indulges in this nonsense, this ‘who’s got the biggest willy’ contest. Are we really supposed to believe that the citizens of Spain, Italy, Demark and Sweden live under the shadow of shame, and a greater sense of insecurity than the UK? Is Angela Merkel a naïve and dangerous idealist for not spending taxes on enriching plutonium, and instead squandering them on education, healthcare and reliable, affordable public transport?
Finally of course we mustn’t forget the influence of those who profit financially; the owners, managers and shareholders of the companies who will share-out the £20 billion-odd booty, if Trident is replaced. It’s no small sum, and it is surely not paranoid to note that many of those who would benefit are politically well placed.
Rather than labour the point, and risk being called a conspiracy theorist, it is instructive to look outside our own bubble and into someone else’s. We British are quick to scorn, despair, and perhaps even chuckle, at the way the US gun-lobby scares citizens into buying firearms. To us, it is obvious that the consequences are a more dangerous society, a more frightened, paranoid, volatile, citizenry. It is blindingly obvious that the only people gaining are the arms manufacturers.
Well we shouldn’t laugh too hard. This is exactly the same tactic our own arms manufacturers use on us: They stoke fear and paranoia to get us to buy things that in fact make things worse. Like the handgun lobby they maintain deeply unhealthy affiliations with government and media. Like the handgun lobby, they claim to defend freedom then sell their wares to time-served oppressors. In their reckless pursuit of profit they stretch the rules of who can make a purchase, and surprise surprise, Monday’s responsible purchaser often becomes Tuesday’s serial killer, albeit state serial killer.
In the face of this barrage of greed, vanity and propaganda it’s astonishing that a full quarter of adult Britons polled (and nearly half of Scots) want the whole thing scrapped. We might ask Laura Kuenssberg what representation those citizens were being given when she conflated her own pro-nuclear outlook with the opinions of British voters? Without such propaganda perhaps a great many more citizens would wander over to join the sane lobby. Given time, Britain might become a country where advocating the ownership of nuclear weapons rendered a candidate deluded and unelectable, and a threat to national security. We’d never look back.