Leading Article: What is Trident for?

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IT IS 44ft 6ins long and 83ins in diameter. It can rise 20 miles in 30 seconds. It can penetrate anything within 7,500 miles and, most important, it will, as Ernest Bevin used to put it, 'have the bloody Union Jack flying on top of it'. It is something of which any Prime Minister can be proud. John Major needs it - or thinks he does.

It is the Trident II Intercontinental Ballistic Missile, carrying eight warheads, each of which can deliver 40 times the power of the Hiroshima bomb. While Presidents Bush and Yeltsin meet to agree huge reductions in strategic weapons, the British Government plans to strengthen the nation's nuclear forces. The initial cost will be more than pounds 10bn - about pounds 700 for every family in the country - and, according to some estimates, it will cost three times that to keep the new nuclear weapon capacity operational over 30 years. By early next century the US and Russia intend to reduce their stockpiles of nuclear warheads by two-thirds. Britain plans to increase its stockpile by 150 per cent - and, since each of the 512 new warheads (carried on 64 missiles) will be far more powerful than each of those on the 25-year-old Polaris fleet, the increase in destructive power will be greater still.

There is no significant political debate about the nature, purpose and scale of this awesome force. Labour, haunted by its foolish commitment to unilateral nuclear disarmament at the height of the Cold War, hardly dare open its mouth. The Tories, after fighting four elections as the party that would keep up Britain's nuclear defences, are reluctant to change a winning formula, even on a playing field altered out of recognition by the end of the Soviet Union.

But the question still compels an answer: why continue with Trident? It is no use saying 'just in case'. In case of what? A Russian invasion of Western Europe is no longer credible. Can Trident deter the Ukraine and other former Soviet republics, which still have substantial nuclear stockpiles, from disturbing the peace? It is inconceivable that in, say, 1998, this country would launch a nuclear weapon to sort out some imbroglio in countries more unheard of than Czechoslovakia in 1938. It is still less conceivable that it would do so unilaterally when no British government has taken military action without American support since 1956.

What of unpredictable tyrants in the Middle East and elsewhere? Here, the real security lies in preventing the spread of nuclear weapons. Britain, a medium-sized power, cannot credibly argue against Iran, Israel, Syria, India or South Korea developing weapons (or, for that matter, the Ukraine or Armenia retaining theirs) when its nuclear force is being strengthened. All these other countries can at least point to unfriendly neighbours; we have no such excuse unless ministers are thinking of a nuclear strike against the Bundesbank or French farmers.

The truth is that Trident is not much more than a national virility symbol. Without our rippling nuclear muscles, we fear losing our place among the big boys at the top table. We do not want to be like Sweden or Switzerland. Or, rather, the Government doesn't. According to a Gallup poll last week, half the population would prefer to be more like Sweden or Switzerland, against one-third who thinks Britain should be a leading world power. This, remember, is a country that agonises over the cost of building a few miles of railway or repairing its school buildings. The Government thinks it madness to subsidise coal mining. We can afford, apparently, to insure ourselves against the remote threat of nuclear aggression but not against some interruption (or prohibitive price increase) in imported energy supplies. We embrace the trappings of great military power while neglecting the transport, education and scientific research that support economic health. Somewhere down that road, we become tinpot democrats with nuclear weapons. Britain can properly defend its national interest only when it sheds its post-imperial delusions.

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