On Tuesday this week I spoke, alongside the former Foreign Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind and the former MOD official Sir Michael Quinlan, in The Spectator/Intelligence Squared debate on Trident. We were arguing for the retention of the British independent nuclear deterrent. The Spectator has a report of the debate here, and the podcast of the debate is here. The format of these debates is that a vote of the audience is taken before and after the speeches. As you will see from the report, there was a huge swing to our side of the argument.
The report is not quite right - and I therefore hold myself responsible for lack of clarity - in citing me as arguing that the independent deterrent "had stopped Russia from contemplating a limited-theatre nuclear attack". It's a small point, but just in case this is ever quoted back at me, I shall correct it here.
There were two occasions - the Cuba Missile Crisis in 1962, and the bizarre Soviet misapprehension of Nato's Able Archer exercise in 1983 - on which the world came perilously close to nuclear war. I do not believe, however, that the Soviet Union would have seriously contemplated a "limited" nuclear attack using battlefield or theatre nuclear weapons, owing to the risk of escalation to strategic nuclear war. Our assurance of that caution was the collective security provided by the Atlantic alliance, which - to Britain's immense benefit - existed regardless of our independent deterrent. I do consider, however, that the independent deterrent mitigated the risk of nuclear blackmail by the Soviet Union. Nuclear blackmail would have taken the form of, say, a threat against a British city unless the West agreed to withdraw from West Berlin. A Soviet leader might have calculated, or miscalculated, that a US leader would hold back, for fear of putting American cities at risk, rather than defend Western Europe. It was not a likely scenario but it was a possible one, supposing there had been a combination of an adventurist Soviet leader (say, Khrushchev) and a feeble American one (say, Jimmy Carter). The British (and to a lesser extent, the French) nuclear deterrent made it slightly less likely that such an appalling dilemma might be forced on Western leaders. This is the argument for a second centre of nuclear decision-making within Nato.
In my view, there is a still stronger case for Trident now, in our "second nuclear age". Soviet leaders, while brutal and expansionist, were risk-averse. Even Khrushchev, in the Cuba Missile Crisis, was scared witless by Castro's urging a nuclear first strike should the US invade Cuba. It is not clear whether the same will be true of the likely nuclear acquirers of the next few decades. I take seriously the risk of nuclear blackmail by an emerging power such as Iran, whose nuclear programme I have no doubt is intended for more sinister purposes than the generation of electricity. I believe it would consequently be reckless for us to abandon the only reliable way we have of ensuring that a crisis does not escalate beyond our control, namely our nuclear deterrent.
During the controversies about disarmament policy in the 1980s, the anti-nuclear campaigners almost never, from my experience, dealt with the issue of potential nuclear blackmail if we disarmed unilaterally. But there was one exception worth noting. A CND member called Jeff McMahan, then a Cambridge research student in philosophy, wrote a good book in 1981 called British Nuclear Weapons: For and Against, in which he did discuss the issue at length. Much to his credit, he couldn't get round the fact that the only way to deter nuclear blackmail was a countervailing nuclear threat, and he therefore accepted the logic of Nato's extended deterrence and facilities such as the early warning system at Fylingdales in North Yorkshire. In short, he reasoned himself into a position that was indistinguishable in essentials from that of liberal Atlanticists.
Two minor points about the debate. First, the Spectator report states: "Dr Rebecca Johnson, a Nobel Peace Prize nominee, confessed that she had once ‘danced on nuclear weapons silos at Greenham Common’." Rebecca said this, in fact, because I'd brought it up in the first place as a relevant point of biographical information. It's just a fact. You can read her lyrics for the "Silos Song" here (though to my regret the audio clip isn't working). Secondly, listening back to the debate I realised to my consternation that I had described Trident as our deterrent "to the middle of the next century". This is what happens when you don't use notes. My slip of the tongue puts me in the distinguished company of the hapless Vice-President Dan Quayle, who famously remarked, "I didn't live in this century." It's also an indication of how ancient my arguments are, because I was indeed using them in the last century.