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The English Church is, actually, against the replacement of Trident

So why don’t the bishops intervene in the current debate?

By on Thursday, 5 August 2010

The English Church is, actually, against the replacement of Trident

Gregory (Scotland Yard detective): Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?
Sherlock Holmes: To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.
Gregory: The dog did nothing in the night-time.
Holmes: That was the curious incident.

Over the last few years, replacing the Trident nuclear missile system has become more and more controversial. The Lib Dems are against it: the Conservatives want to replace it at enormous cost: and Chancellor George Osborne says it has to be paid for out of the existing Defence budget, to the fury of the (Catholic) Defence Secretary, Liam Fox. The English bishops have in fact pronounced against it, but a very long time ago. It is surely odd that they say nothing now.

This is what they said about replacing Trident in 2oo6: “… by decommissioning its nuclear weapons, the UK now has a unique opportunity to offer [an example of] legitimate self-defence without the unconscionable threat of nuclear destruction.”  So, they were against Tony Blair replacing Trident. But this is an ongoing issue: why don’t they say so once more—now the subject is topical again?

It’s probably a good idea to remind ourselves what the Trident programme is. It was, of course, designed specifically for the Cold War, to deter the Soviet Union (which no longer exists)  from any thought of dropping nuclear bombs on us. We have 58 nuclear-armed Trident submarine-launched ballistic missiles and around 200 nuclear warheads on 4 Vanguard-class ballistic missile submarines. At least one of these submarines is always on patrol as a continuous at-sea deterrent, armed with up to 16 Trident missiles and around 48 nuclear warheads.

Now, it is arguable that what was called mutually assured destruction did in fact keep the peace from the 50s to the 80s. But now? I don’t see it. Who is this immensely expensive deterrent supposed to deter?

Perhaps the bishops want to keep out of this precisely because it’s become controversial again, because they think this is an issue between left and right. Predictably, the loony-right conservative commentator Simon Heffer thinks that we should keep Trident and that we should fund it by ending “the overseas aid budget, which is a pointless, socialist waste of money”.

But the fact is that this is not an issue between conservatives and radicals. It was Simon Heffer’s great hero—and hero of the conservative right in general—Enoch Powell, who with his usual ruthless logic came to the conclusion (even at the height of the cold war) that there were no “rational grounds on which the deformation of our defence preparations … by our determination to maintain a current independent nuclear deterrent can be justified”.  Some three decades later, the present Holy Father said much the same, describing the policies of  “those governments which count on nuclear arms as a means of ensuring the security of their countries” as “not only baneful but also completely fallacious”.

The Church has a mind on this issue, and ought—here and in the current political circumstances—to give voice to it. Our bishops should intervene—the dog should do something in the night-time: it is surely, to use Holmes’s word, “curious” that they do nothing.

  • David Lindsay

    Far from representing national pride or independence, our nuclear weapons programme has only ever represented the wholesale subjugation of Britain’s defence capability to a foreign power. That power maintains no less friendly relations with numerous other countries, almost none of which have nuclear weapons. Like radiological, chemical and biological weapons, nuclear weapons are morally repugnant simply in themselves. They offer not the slightest defence against a range of loosely knit, if at all connected, terrorist organisations pursuing a range of loosely knit, if at all connected, aims in relation to a range of countries while actually governing no state. Where would any such organisation keep nuclear weapons in the first place?

    Furthermore, the possession of nuclear weapons serves to convey to terrorists and their supporters that Britain wishes to “play with the big boys”, thereby contributing to making Britain a target for the terrorist activity against which such weapons are defensively useless. It is high time for Britain to grow up. Britain’s permanent seat on the UN Security Council could not be taken away without British consent, and so does not depend in any way on her possession of nuclear weapons; on the contrary, the world needs and deserves a non-nuclear permanent member of that Council.

    Most European countries do not have nuclear weapons, and nor does Canada, Australia or New Zealand. Are these therefore in greater danger? On the contrary, the London bombings of 7th July 2005 were attacks on a country with nuclear weapons, while the attacks of 11th September 2001 were against the country with by far the largest nuclear arsenal in the world. The only “nuclear power” in the Middle East is Israel. Is Israel the most secure state in the Middle East? It is mind-boggling to hear people go on about Iran, whose President is in any case many years away from acquiring a nuclear weapon, and in any case only wants one (if he does) to use against the only Middle Eastern country that already has them. What does any of this have to do with us?

    Numerous Tories with relevant experience – Anthony Head, Peter Thorneycroft, Nigel Birch, Aubrey Jones – were sceptical about, or downright hostile towards, British nuclear weapons in the Fifties and Sixties. In March 1964, while First Lord of the Admiralty and thus responsible for Polaris, George Jellicoe suggested that Britain might pool her nuclear deterrent with the rest of NATO. Enoch Powell denounced the whole thing as not just anything but independent in practice, but also immoral in principle. The rural populist John G Diefenbaker, who opposed official bilingualism in Canada’s English-speaking provinces, and who campaigned for his flag to remain the Canadian Red Ensign with the Union Flag in its corner, also kept JFK’s nukes off Canadian soil. Gaitskell’s Campaign for Democratic Socialism explicitly supported the unilateral renunciation of Britain’s nuclear weapons, and the document Policy for Peace, on which Gaitskell eventually won his battle at the 1961 Labour Conference, stated: “Britain should cease the attempt to remain an independent nuclear power, since that neither strengthens the alliance, nor is it now a sensible use of our limited resources.”

    There could not be bigger and more unwise spending, or a more ineffective example of the “Big State”, than nuclear weapons in general and Trident in particular. Diverting enormous sums of money towards public services, towards the relief of poverty at home and abroad, and towards paying off our national debt, precisely by reasserting control over our own defence capability, would represent a most significant step towards One Nation politics, with an equal emphasis on the One and on the Nation. It is what Disraeli would have done.

  • Rainbow Revolution

    Some Bishops have shown impressive leadership on this issue – for example, Stephen Cottrell, the Anglican Bishop of Reading. Alan MacDonald, former Moderator of the Church of Scotland has also spoken out clearly against Trident.

    However, as the article indicates, Bishops have been too quiet on this issue and should be voicing opposition to Trident on moral grounds. A few weeks ago a letter to the Times from three retired generals had a major impact in highlighting military opposition to Trident. I would like to see a similar initiative from a cross-faith selection of religious leaders.

  • Suleyman

    In a World where nuclear weapons exist, it gives us greater protection against nuclear attack if we possess nuclear weapons – sad but true. If we do not retain a nuclear deterrent, and it need not be Trident, it simply means that we are happy to sponge off of the Americans for our protection while parading our own repugnant form of moral “superiority”. This is simply moral cowardice. If the Bishops argue against Britain's possession of a nuclear deterrent, it is not in my name.

  • Dphanley

    It's no secret that the English bishops are anti-Tridentine!