We can no longer afford our nuclear deterrent, says Stephen Wall, a former adviser to Tony Blair In 1962 President Kennedy scrapped work on the Skybolt air-to-ground nuclear missile and provoked a crisis in Anglo-American relations. Britain had an agreement to buy the missile as the basis of her independent nuclear arsenal. The President," wrote his adviser Ted Sorensen "who saw no point to a small independent British deterrent anyway — mistakenly assumed that it was largely a technical and not a political problem." How wrong he was. Macmillan had staked British prestige on having an independent nuclear deterrent. Kennedy's decision threatened to topple his government.
Kennedy relented. Britain secured access to the Polaris submarine-based nuclear deterrent and, under the Thatcher government, to its modern-day successor, Trident. Britain has four Trident submarines, each with 16 multiple warhead missiles with a range of some 7.500 miles. They were intended to be able to "take out" large Russian cities, with massive accompanying loss of life. In their horrendous potential destructive power lies the whole concept of deterrence.
Some time in the 2020s the submarines and warheads will no longer be serviceable. The Government has to make a decision about the future of the British independent nuclear deterrent. According to John Reid, the Defence Secretary, the decision is about what kind of nuclear deterrence Britain should have, not about whether we need it at all. He has advanced "the simple proposition that as long as a potential enemy has a nuclear weapon we should retain one".
That looks a rather casual basis on which to decide on a new nuclear weapons system that could cost £25 billion. Cost is a huge issue as we wrestle with our own inability to meet obligations to pensioners; the state of National Health Service finance and our obligations to invest in help for the world's poorest, as well as in technology to help tackle the threat posed by climate change. But the issue of cost is outweighed by the political and moral arguments: does Britain still need an independent nuclear deterrent? Can it be morally justifiable to have in our control the capacity to destroy entire cities and their populations?
Political prestige has always played a large part in Britain's decision to have its own deterrent. In 1946, Labour foreign secretary Ernest Bevin said: "We've got to have this thing over here whatever it costs. We've got to have the bloody Union Jack on top of it." America, Russia, France, China and Britain were the only nuclear states. Having our own deterrent was our ticket to the top table, a comforting reminder of the great-power status we had once enjoyed.
But, there was much more to it than prestige. Throughout the period of the Cold War, successive governments , Conservative and Labour, were convinced that our defence depended on the deterrent. There were powerful arguments in favour. In my Benedictine school in the early 1960s the debating society argued the motion —This Ilouse believes nuclear war to be inevitable". The world came as close to nuclear war during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis as it has ever done. A former Russian ambassador in London told me that, at the height of the crisis, news reached Khrushchev that President Kennedy had gone to Sunday evening Mass in Washington. "That means," said Khrushchev, "that the Americans will not launch a nuclear attack during the next hour."
The Soviet Union had massively more conventional forces than the West. A Soviet land attack on West Germany could only have been halted by battlefield nuclear weapons. Britain's deterrent made a contribution to the Nato defence arsenal. It also gave us the reassurance that. if the Soviet Union were ever tempted to pick us off, in the hope that the Americans might not be dragged in to an all-out confrontation, they would be compelled to think twice.
Whether those arguments were right or wrong, they held sway. There was huge opposition to nuclear weapons, embodied in the annual march from Aldermaston to London, but it was not the majority view. Labour's policy of unilateral nuclear disarmament contributed to its crushing defeat by Margaret Thatcher in 1983.
But today's world is very different. The threat from a Communist Soviet Union has gone. Few people think we are likely to face a similar threat from China, increasingly dependent on capitalist liberal markets. The menace comes, rather, from the number of states that have acquired, or will acquire, nuclear weapons: India, Pakistan and Israel, with North Korea and Iran running hard in the same direction. The prospect of nuclear weapons spreading, including to countries with irresponsible governments, as well as to terrorists, is very real. We know that in the early 1990s Saddam Hussein was seeking to acquire a nuclear capability. But equally real is the question of whether such states would pose a threat to Britain and whether having an independent nuclear deterrent in Britain would serve to protect us. It is possible to make the argument that Iran, as just one eumple, might in due course have nuclear missiles with the range to strike the United Kingdom. But how great is the risk of such a strike in the first place? How conceivable is it that such a threat would be against Britain alone, rather than against much of the international community, which would have a strong interest in coming together to tackle it? As for terrorist groups, would we really be prepared to obliterate much of northern Pakistan because Osama bin Laden may be hiding there? It seems as politically unthinkable as it would be morally repugnant.
Does the risk we might run by no longer having our own deterrent justify the huge expense of replacing Trident? I have to say, I doubt it. There may be lower-cost options, but they leave open the issue of whether nuclear disarmament by Britain would set a beneficial example: would others follow suit? And can any deterrent be justified in Moral terms?
I find it impossible to know whether Britain's setting an example by giving up our nuclear weapons would influence others to follow suit. South Africa has given up its nuclear capability with no noticeable knockon effect. It would not be worth doing if the cost and moral factors did not point in the same direction.
In 1962 Cardinal Heenan told Professor Anthony Kenny, then still a Catholic priest arguing the moral case for unilateral nuclear disarmament, that "I do not in any way condemn your views. I think you oversimplify this grave problem but I don't know. It is because I am in doubt that I have made no statement." In 1983 Cardinal Hume told the Times that the Church "gives a strictly qualified assent to the policy of deterrence but solely on condition that it constitutes a stage towards disarmament". Cardinal Martino told the UN General Assembly in 1993 that "maintaining nuclear deterrence into the 21st century will not aid but impede peace".
I sympathise with Cardinal Heenan, and indeed with Government ministers, whose first duty is national security. Unlike Anthony Kenny, I do not feel able to base my own view on the moral arguments alone. Maybe 35 years as a civil servant skewed my moral compass.
But as I look at the combination of arguments — the horrendous cost, the diminished relevance of deterrence in the modem world and the moral argument — then I think the brave and right thing to do would be for Britain not to replace Trident and to cease being a nuclear power.
Sir Stephen Wall was the Prime Minister's Europe Adviser and head of the European Secretariat in the Cabinet Office