Dan Plesch: Let's clear away the Trident delusion

Without the myth that we are an independent nuclear power, we could have a more positive relationship with the US

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'Britain's ability to continue with nuclear weapons without US support becomes very slim to the point of invisibility", the Conservative defence specialist Dr Julian Lewis MP admitted in 2005 when addressing a conference in Whitehall. Indeed, British nuclear weapons rely on "American goodwill" according to Colin Gray, a strategist favoured by both President Bush Snr and Mrs Thatcher.

Sadly, these occasional confessions have not influenced the debate. Where then is the independent deterrent that all fuss is about? And since when has "goodwill" become an appendix to Machiavelli's The Prince?

Advocates of Trident argue that if Britain can fire the missiles independently it does not matter if it is bought in from the US. A perspective reinforced by the historian Peter Hennessy's revelation that British prime ministers place a letter with instructions for the captain in each submarine's safe in case the nation is devastated and he has to decide what to do. It is a scene that conjures up images from a war film, starring a stiff-upper-lipped John Mills.

But this is not convincing. In the days when Bruce Kent led CND, one of the great hawks of the era, Air Vice-Marshal Stuart Menaul wrote, in 1980: "Britain no longer has an independent nuclear deterrent ... strategic considerations as far as Britain is concerned are no longer relevant ... it could only be used after authority for the use of nuclear weapons had been conveyed from the President of the United States to SACEUR [the US general at Nato]." Even further back, in 1962, Robert McNamara, then US defense secretary, stated that the UK did not operate independently.

The absorption of the UK into the US nuclear force was made explicit only this year. Stephen Johnson, the American admiral in charge of the US Trident programme, gave his annual progress report to Congress. Among his top accomplishments for "sustainment of our [ie the US] sea-based deterrent" was sending HMS Victorious to sea after a refit. He does not list the British Trident submarine separately. No, the British Trident submarine is simply listed with the American ones under the heading "Today's Force".

This document came to me from the Berlin researcher Otfried Nassauer. It did not come from Oxford, Cambridge or King's College. It is left to peace researchers such as John Ainslie to trawl US documents to prove the American widgets and software in "British" Trident, and Di McDonald and Peter Burt to monitor the bomb factory at Aldermaston, near Reading.

Aldermaston was thought to produce British bombs. So although a generation ago Labour's Denis Healey ridiculed the Trident missile deal, at least the bit that went bang was British. Healey explained: "Under the rent-a-rocket agreement we have to swap these Moss Bros missiles every seven or eight years for other missiles in the American stockpile ... [there are] some serious political disadvantages, which can be summed up as a period of prolonged and humiliating dependence on the US."

Aldermaston is now privatised to US companies. Lockheed Martin manages it. Vital machine tools, electronics and explosive nuclear materials have always come from the US. During the Cold War all nuclear information was secret. While the public was told there was a Union Jack on top, privately officials were dismayed. Sir Richard Scott, a permanent secretary for Harold Macmillan, lamented that the decision to buy Polaris (Trident's predecessor) "puts us in America's pocket". The then head of the RAF said Polaris would only perpetuate the "myth" of an independent deterrent. President Charles de Gaulle (who refused Polaris) said Britain was now a US vassal, would pursue US policies in Europe, and so France would veto British membership of the European Community. Being a Frenchman was enough for the British establishment to ignore him.

These issues are fundamental to renewing Trident. It is not a matter of the needs of the Army, of terrorism, or cost. It is no use debating if the emperor needs this suit of clothes in the present geopolitical climate, or whether the suit is too expensive. There is no suit. Those who support the British bomb believe it is there if we have again to fight the Battle of Britain. If it were 1940, a US-supplied Spitfire would have no ammunition, no spares, no radio and no replacement, because the US was neutral.

Any attempt to go in with the French or start an independent programme would have to start from scratch, for a key element in the agreement with the US is not to share with others and not to be secret from it. Those who want a proper bomb like France, Israel or China – should pay the £200bn or so it will cost to start a bomb programme on a greenfield site.

So is the price of the nuclear special relationship worth paying? Surely it is worth the price of admission to get access to US technology, intelligence on terrorists and a chance to whisper in the president's ear in times of crisis? The whole deal – technically the Mutual Defence Agreement – gets negotiated every 10 years. The next time will be before 2014, and the last time? Around the time of the Iraq war. Who was running the US government negotiating team? One John Bolton – favoured attack dog of the neocons. Bolton had to tell the president and Congress that the UK was a reliable ally contributing to the defence of the US. Would he have done so if the UK had not invaded Iraq? Will President Palin, or Obama, be able to say this in 2013 when it comes to tackling Iran – as Tony Blair insists we must? And who will discuss this publicly with the people?

There is another price to pay that British strategists ignore. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty expressly prohibits even the indirect sharing of nuclear weapons by the states that have them. The Third World, often led by South Africa, points out the long-standing Anglo-American violation. And fear of having the issue raised limits British attention to Chinese nuclear support for Pakistan and Russian and US support for India.

At present the only public figure willing to call it as it is, is Labour leader candidate Diane Abbott. All credit to her, and all shame on the Westminster boys' club who ramble on about "main gate" decisions for buying new submarines, and value for money. In 2006, Parliament's Defence Committee briefly broke ranks and called for the dependence on the US to be a key issue in the public debate: neither the media nor academia responded.

Once we clear away the Trident delusion a much more positive relationship with the US is possible. We should remember that it was US policy under FDR in the Second World War that led to the creation of the UN and that a strong UN focused on economic and social cohesion for war prevention is the key to long-term security.

Dan Plesch's America, Hitler and the UN is published by I B Tauris later this year. Plesch is director of the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy at SOAS. www.danplesch.net

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