The independent deterrent is a useless status symbol

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The Independent Online

A momentous event took place at the weekend. A man from West Berkshire District Council took a pair of wire cutters and snipped through the fence surrounding Greenham Common. It was not reported whether this local government official had a rainbow painted on his face and whooped like an Apache before symbolically burying a placenta under a peace tree, but somehow I doubt it.

The former US Air Force base, the old front line in the battle against nuclear weapons, is just an ordinary piece of common ground once more. It brings a patriotic lump to my throat. Now it can be used for more traditional English pastimes, such as scattering pornographic magazines about or pretending not to notice that your dog is going to the toilet.

I have seen first-hand the misery that nuclear weapons can cause. I once stood in the rain outside Greenham Common, holding hands with a peace studies lecturer from Bradford. But though the battle for the land has now been won, the principle for which so many women gave up their homes, jobs and fashion sense has not. Britain still has nuclear weapons.

Just as the peace camps have disappeared, so the issue has vanished from the British political agenda. The Cold War may be over, the world may have changed, but we are still spending billions on an independent deterrent that was originally "justified" on the grounds that it would prevent a Soviet attack on Western Europe. Today we could stop a Russian invasion by telling the AA not to answer breakdown calls from any tanks west of Moscow.

So why do we still spend billions on nuclear weapons? The answer is, of course, for the same reason as before; it has nothing to do with military strategy and everything to do with political expediency. Because no political party dares to present the British electorate with the unpalatable truth that we are not an important enough country to warrant having the bomb.

Ever since the end of the Second World War the British have been living under a massive self-delusion about our relative significance as a world player and key to this has been our possession of nuclear weapons. We have been like a family struggling to make ends meet in a council tower block in the West Midlands. As they sink deeper into debt the wife tentatively suggests to her husband: "Well, we could always get rid of the yacht''

"Get rid of the yacht? Are you mad?" "But it's costing us a fortune dear, and we don't sail or live by the sea or anything''

"But what would the neighbours think of us if we didn't have a yacht? We'd be a laughing stock."

There are plenty of things that we believed in the 1950s that we now realise are simply not true. The Royals are not the perfect family unit, the police are not always 100 per cent honest and Arthur Askey's "Bumble Bee" song was not a hilarious tour de force. But the British people still cling on to the idea that Britain is a major military power and so no politician dares suggest we give up our nuclear weapons.

We might all be driving around in German and Japanese cars, but hey, we've got the bomb and they haven't. There must be cheaper ways of making ourselves feel superior to the Germans. Practising for potential penalty shoot-outs would be a start.

In fact, the billions that we have spent over the years on our nuclear white elephant are partly the reason why we have less economic clout than many of our neighbours. Imagine if some of that money had gone into education and industry? What use are atom bombs when BMW closes Rover; we can't nuke Munich, even if there are some in the Conservative Party who would argue otherwise.

This week it was reported that Britain would actually need several days to get its missiles ready to fire. Presumably that's the time it would take for the US president to return Britain's message asking for permission. It makes no more sense for Britain to spend billions to have its own deterrent than it would for the state of North Dakota. We are part of a military alliance completely dominated by Washington; our "independent" deterrent is in fact part of the American nuclear arsenal, the only catch being that we have to pay for it. Perhaps that's why it's called a "special relationship". Though the US will always be a nuclear power, there is less reason than ever before for Britain to live in penury so that we can keep paying our subscriptions to be a member of the nuclear club.

The bomb is an irrelevant status symbol from another age. It's like those platform shoes that we all wore in the Seventies. We felt great because they made us feel so tall. It was just a shame they prevented us from doing anything useful, like walking.