Leading Article: Trident remains a necessity

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The Independent Online
THE LIKELIHOOD of a nuclear weapon being fired in anger is probably greater now than it was five years ago. The vast nuclear confrontation of the Cold War was held under tight technical and political control by reasonably rational people on both sides. There were moments of danger, notably the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, and always the possibility of an accident, but through most of that period, neither side came near reaching for the button to initiate an attack.

Although Britons can now sleep reasonably soundly in the knowledge that there is no enemy visibly lining up this island in nuclear sights, sleep becomes less easy if one looks around the world. The former Soviet Union has huge quantities of nuclear weapons under wobbly control. China and Israel are similarly armed. India and Pakistan are close to the threshold or over it. North Korea and Iran may not be far off. Iraq would probably be there by now if it had not lost the Gulf war. Others are doubtless on their way.

In these circumstances it is reasonable to be somewhat confused about the value of Britain's Trident system, but not as confused as the Labour Party appeared when it debated the subject yesterday. If the vote went against Trident, as we shall know today, it will be only a mild setback for John Smith and will not affect the policies of any future Labour government. Nor will it lose the party as many votes as in the past. But it will accurately reflect the continuing strength of aETHER write errornti-nuclear sentiment in the party.

During the Cold War the unilateralists were driven largely by moral considerations, backed sometimes by unreal hope that they might inspire others to follow their example. The multilateralists, mostly trying to conceal a genuine belief in nuclear weapons, claimed to believe they could bargain away the British deterrent in return for reductions by other nuclear powers.

The moral reasons remain strong, constant and deserving of sympathy; the power of example never existed and still does not; the hope of bargaining Britain's deterrent for multilateral reductions must be even weaker now than it was. If the American and Russian arsenals are eventually negotiated to well below the 3,500 warheads envisaged for the year 2003, Britain's 500 or so warheads might become relevant, but that is a long way off. Meanwhile, there will be Third World nuclear powers going their own way.

The main reasons for not scrapping Trident now are that it is largely paid for, so little money would be saved, and that we do not know what sort of world we are going to be living in over the next 20 years. Russia may once again become a hostile nuclear power. The American commitment to Europe is not guaranteed. Nor is France's. Third World countries may need to be deterred, even, perhaps, from firing missiles in this direction.

The rational answer would be to join nuclear forces with France, but French rationality does not extend that far. So Britain would be foolish, entering a period of such uncertainties, to abandon a weapons system that is now relatively cheap.