I hadn`t quite realised how long it has been since I posted a Blog here! I have been concentrating my writing through my role as Chair of the Green Liberal Democrats, so I have been writing articles for the GLD website. Thought it was about time to write something here as well. And, as we are coming up to the annual Autumn Conference of the Liberal Democrats in Brighton, this will be, anyway, a political post too.
When I rejoined the Liberal Democrats just before my 70th birthday I had a plan – and that was to do everything I could to re-radicalise the party, as I felt it had lost its LIBERAL focus. I gave myself a five year target and if the plan was not successful I would go back to planting trees to satisfy my environmental ambitions (it so happens I have been planting trees as well, but that`s another story for another day).
As some of you have perhaps seen elsewhere, I recently celebrated my three quarters of a century, so my five year timeline is really up, but I am pleased to say I have been making progress on issues on the environmental front. However, there was one issue that was eluding me… the Liberal Party which I joined back in the mid-1960s was anti-nuclear weapons, but at some point after the merger with the SDP in 1988, party policy changed to become in favour of the so-called nuclear deterrent. I have been trying to help nudge the party to change its mind since being back, but the Federal Conference Committee kept rejecting the issue for debate.
A motion on the `nuclear deterrent` was chosen for debate in Brighton this autumn, but it would make our policy even more pro-nuclear, so we decided it should be amended and I have had a large hand in drafting the amendment. What follows is an article which I wrote for the magazine of Liberal International “InterLib” – and I thought I would post it here, too…
Nuclear Weapons – a Liberal Democrat rethink.
(“The prospect for the human race is sombre beyond all precedent. Mankind is faced with a clear-cut alternative: either we shall all perish, or we shall have to acquire some slight degree of common sense.” Bertrand Russell, August 1945, written just after Hiroshima and Nagasaki had been bombed)
The war of aggression Putin has been waging for the last six months or more (arguably a full eight years, in fact!) has thrown into stark relief that Liberal Democrat `20th Century policies` on nuclear weapons are no longer fit for purpose and, indeed, our approach to defence policy, as a whole, needs to be looked at in depth, in the face of a much-changed geopolitical environment.
The political and economic response to Russian aggression in Ukraine, has been remarkable in its unity of purpose and speed of decision-making. The fact that the Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelensky – the leader of a sister Party in the European Liberal Democrat family – has been heroic and steadfast in standing up to the Russian Bear in defence of Liberal Democracy, has helped to affirm, perhaps reaffirm, cultural Western views and values of Liberal Democracy per se.
There may be, indeed there will be, those who argue that it is the deterrent threat of the West`s nuclear weapons that has kept Putin from even greater expansionist ambitions, but, in truth, it has been the determination and solidity of the Liberal Democratic Alliance of the West and its preparedness to supply conventional weapons and intelligence to our heroic proxy in Ukraine. Beyond that, there has been an equally remarkable unity of economic sanctions that have been applied remarkably quickly against Russia and Russian Oligarchs, that may have helped keep the Bear`s claws trimmed.
Let us, for the moment, allow the argument that the MAD certainty of Mutually Assured Destruction has been the thing that has stopped Putin from using his nuclear weaponry, we still have to ask the question of what comes next. Whilst nuclear weapons exist and the countries that own them insist that they may use them “if necessary”, there will always be a risk that a perfect storm of human and/or machine error could trigger Armageddon.
I am the same age as the United Nations, and I can recall as a teenager what seemed to be the very real possibility of having to cover classroom windows with brown paper against the depredations of nuclear weapons during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Professor Anthony Aguirre, a board member of the Future of Life Institute suggests that the “… constellation of incidents around (and including) the Cuban missile crisis…” were, for him, the scariest of close calls.
Aguirre concluded that “(a) when tensions escalate, it becomes dramatically more probable that unfortunate coincidences etc. will conspire to create big problems and (b) we were very lucky to get through the Cuban Missile crisis, and we have no good reason to be confident that we would make it through any similar flare-up in tensions.”
One of the biggest dangers comes from the fact that the accepted protocol for western nuclear weapons is that they are `always on`. The military call this protocol “Prompt Launch” – the idea being that if (apparently) being attacked, nuclear weapons can be launched to ensure they are not obliterated by incoming missiles. The Union of Concerned Scientists call this the “Hair Trigger Alert” and believe it should be scrapped for the safety of humanity. So far, we have been lucky that the protocol has not yet been applied – though it has been a close-run thing on many occasions.
There is no question that the Russian war against Ukraine with its fake news and disinformation provides a clear opportunity for `tensions to escalate`. And it is in this situation we must be clear about where we should be headed after this conflict is resolved – even if resolution still seems a (far?) distant hope.
Position of UK Liberal Democrats
So, it is in this tense context that our debate in Brighton is set. Unfortunately, the position presented by the motion, chosen (by a relatively small margin of the twenty or so voting members) within the Federal Conference Committee, provides something an `establishment-knee-jerk` response to the clear and present danger represented by Putin`s Russia. It portrays a viewpoint as if Liberal Democrats were part of the current Government and therefore should be presumed to support the status quo. Indeed, it goes further and suggests we would, if in power now, spend a huge sum on building a fourth submarine to ensure “continuous at-sea deterrence”. (Nuclear proliferation is, however, against current Lib Dem policy!)
The financial consequences of that would be twofold:
We would be hard-pressed to provide the continuing advanced conventional weaponry needed by Ukraine (and materiel replacements) if funds were taken up with building a new sub.
We would not be able to retain (nor yet increase) the size of our current standing-total of armed forces which are severely threatened with reductions already.
It is our view, as the movers of the proposed amendment to the motion, that the debate should concentrate on consideration of the position we should take as a Party after the next General Election.
As far as Putin`s war on Ukraine is concerned, there are two aspects of Global Geopolitics that have been relevant. One has been the economic and political positioning of Ukraine as an aspiring member of the European Union and the economic consequences that entails. The second is the strength of NATO and its increasing `heft` given the proposed accession of Finland and Sweden earlier this year.
Having ruled ourselves out as member of the EU by our Brexit vote, we really are not in a position to offer any advice or comment on the EU aspirations of Ukraine and other countries, formerly in the orbit of the USSR or imperialist Russia.
However, we feel that the Motion F10 has seriously underplayed the role, and potential role, of NATO and the new commitments the UK has recently made to defending its Eastern borders, which will require conventional weaponry and, potentially, boots on the ground and will NOT require mass-destruction weapons of a supposedly-independent UK nuclear force.
Disempowerment by Deterrence in Reverse?
One of the more concerning aspects of the Ukraine situation is that Russia’s nuclear weapons are under the control of an unpredictable rogue tyrant in Putin. We did nothing when he took Crimea, effectively disempowered by deterrence in reverse – so Putin took that as a signal he could get away with anything. China is also now watching to see what they can get away with in Taiwan and we are walking on eggshells, hoping our `luck` will hold. As former Tory PM, John Major, said recently, “…not every nation is led by men or women of good intent. Democracy has fallen back…”
This also raises the issue of the morality (actually, immorality!) of weapons of mass-destruction and whether any person who believes in liberal values and democracy can ever sanction the potential use of such weapons. Personally, I cannot. In the early 1980s Paddy Ashdown was also “… wholly opposed to nuclear weapons … I agree with the Liberal Party, which is the only British political party that has always opposed a British nuclear deterrent.” (Ashdown, writing in CND magazine, Sanity, in 1985.)
It is estimated that over 90% of the world`s nuclear arsenal belongs to either Russia or the USA and that the UK`s nuclear weapons represent less than 2%. And, as far as Trident is concerned, when the maintenance, design, and testing of UK submarines depend on Washington, and when the nuclear missiles aboard them are on lease from Uncle Sam, very little of that 2% is actually “independent”.
Let me take you back to the assumption we made in the fourth paragraph of this article, that if Putin is holding back from use of nuclear weapons, on the basis of Mutually Assured Destruction, it has patently nothing to do with Trident and the UK`s so-called independent nuclear deterrent.
Therefore, we believe that Liberal Democrats have a significant opportunity to use our ownership of nuclear weapons to create an opening into the area of “common sense” that Bertrand Russell wrote about so eloquently in 1945 – as per the quotation under the title of this piece. That opportunity arises as a result of a multilateral treaty established by the United Nations referred to as the “UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons”, launched in July 2017 and which has already been signed by 86 countries and ratified by 66 countries.
Relevant text from this treaty says, of nuclear weapons, that signatories “…should immediately remove them from operational status, and destroy them as soon as possible but not later than a deadline to be determined by the first meeting of States Parties…”
In order to make this Treaty about truly multilateral disarmament, therefore, it needs to be signed by more than one state which actually has nuclear weapons in the first place. This will always be the most difficult step to achieve and will undoubtedly require a strong dose of uncommon sense to prevail. Nevertheless, in circumstances where multiple potential combatants are standing in a circle with loaded weapons in their hands ready to fire on a hair trigger, perhaps the bravest act will come from the warrior prepared to be the first to put down his weapon.
This is at the root of the amendment`s stipulation that Liberal Democrats would undertake “… to sign this UN Treaty within the life of the Parliament following the next UK General Election…” We need time to be able to apply some leverage on other nuclear powers to act with us – but act we must. We cannot continue to rely on luck to save humanity from close calls that might just as easily go the wrong way as the right way.
Clearly, `realpolitik` will determine whether this is possible, perhaps depending upon our status with the next Government, whether Liberal Democrats are part of a coalition or supporting a `confidence and supply` arrangement. It is, however, a statement of intent, which we anticipate should provide the catalyst for the development of that `uncommon sense` required for change.
Summary and Conclusion
I have tried to cover, here, some of the main arguments we might use to amend what started as a rather waffly motion on nuclear strategy. In brief, we are saying:-
- Nuclear weapons are immoral and illiberal.
- Nuclear weapons cannot prevent armed conflict among states and in all likelihood heighten the risk of miscalculation that could end life on Earth.
- There is an excellent UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons we should support and sign during the next Parliament after a GE, already signed by 86 nations and ratified by 66.
- We should remove Trident from operational status and use the leverage of diplomacy to bring more nuclear powers into the UN Treaty.
- With the additional defence budget released, we should boost person-power and materiel in our armed forces to support the additional NATO commitments consequent upon Putin`s aggression.
To echo what President John F Kennedy said about his plans to go to the moon in the 1960s – “We choose to do these things NOT because they are easy, but BECAUSE they are hard”.
Let us sign the UN Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, not because it is the easy option – but because it is the brave option, the morally right option. Let us take this small step and help to create a huge step for mankind.
And Mikhail Gorbachev, who died very recently, said, “As long as weapons of mass destruction exist, primarily nuclear weapons, the danger is colossal. All nations should declare — all nations — that nuclear weapons must be destroyed. This is to save ourselves and our planet.”
If you are a member of the Lib Dems and you would like to see the amendment in detail, please email me directly at email@example.com and I will send you the details. And please let me know if you would like to sign up to the conference, either live in Brighton or virtually at home, so you can vote for the amendment.
Major’s comment that not all nations are led by those of good intent is, I think the key. There are certain “persons” who – in my humble opinion – would not be deterred by whether another country had nuclear weapons, but – if they decided to launch theirs, would either do so in the belief that they would obliterate their “enemy” before they could respond – or would just not care about the consequences. It might just be if such people saw that their “enemy” did not have potential nuclear response that they would not feel obliged to use theirs; and in time might even reduce or remove them as no longer necessary. I am sure lots of folks would disagree – but…..
P.S> I have heard that the US nuclear arsenal is so out of date and rusting that it is questionable whether it could even become operational.
I agree with everything you’ve said in this article, Keith, but surely LDs’ focus should be getting your Party into a position of power. Only a delusional fanatic would believe that the LDs could form a Government by themselves. An Alliance with Labour and the Greens would seem to offer the best route to power, leading to proportional representation and other democratic outcomes (maybe even nuclear disarmament). We face the frightening prospect of Liz Truss as PM and leader of a Tory party lurching ever further to the right. A General Election within the next 12 months or so seems very much on the cards and I would love to see a serious, radical Opposition emerge in time to wrest control from the dreadful Tories.
btw congratulations on your landmark birthday!