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Debate About Should the United Kingdom Keep Its Nuclear Deterrent

Updated April 20, 2022
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This debate log will cover, opposing arguments presented from the ‘For’ and ‘Against’ side on whether the UK should keep its nuclear deterrent or unilaterally abandon it. At the outset, it is important to understand the definition of a nuclear deterrent, its roles and the meaning of unilaterally abandoning our nuclear weapons. There is seemingly no one definition for the basis or roles of nuclear weapons, this is reflected in the explanation ‘to distinguish a nuclear weapon as “tactical” is subject to conceptual changes and shortcomings, making it difficult to achieve a definition that is both precise and broad enough to apply to various conditions where control of these weapons is needed’ (Millar and Alexander, 2003). Furthermore, The Cambridge Dictionary defines unilateralism as ‘involving only one party or country’ (McIntosh, 2013) – meaning this debate covers whether the UK should abandon their nuclear weapons unilaterally or consider multilateralism.

In the opening statement from the ‘Against’ side, many strong arguments were presented and supported by evidence. The first being that nuclear weapons are extremely costly as per year Trident costs the government £205 billion. This argument proves very intense as this money is spent each year on a defense system that is highly unlikely to be used and that has never been used by the UK in the past. When considering the huge sum of money that is spent on Trident each year, the UK should unilaterally abandon its nuclear weapon as they are in no position to be attacked and other forms of defensive are available and can be funded. However, if the UK was in a vulnerable position then a cooperative approach would be more humane than threatening action with nuclear weapons. A concerning aspect is that billions are being spent on defense when over 14 million individuals in 2019 (O’Leary, 2019) lived under the poverty line. A key argument stemming from this is that the money spent on Trident per year would be better invested in other policy areas such as education and welfare which suffered under austerity. Many would oppose this though, stating that through having a nuclear weapon the UK remains a ‘power’ and respected on an international level- avoiding fear that the UK would lose their seat on the UN Security Council. Yet, this argument lacks weight as respected powers such as Japan and Germany don’t possess nuclear weapons and are not viewed as weak on the international stage.

Another direct argument provided by the ‘Against’ side is that nuclear weapons are outdated as they are not contemporary security threats. As many nations are currently battling against terrorism, healthcare, and poverty. Additionally, the past use of nuclear weapons has demonstrated the devastating effects and serious consequences caused. When such a powerful weapon can be triggered due to miscalculation and miscommunication the effects are devastating. Before the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the effects of radiation remained unknown- if scientists had waited a few more years the extent of damage from radiation would have been understood. Why should a few ‘experts’ be able to decide the fate of thousands of civilians? This is demonstrated as US War Secretary Henry Lewis Stimson expressed that he was unsure whether the bombs were needed to reduce the threat of invasion (Malloy, 2010). The moral and ethical side of nuclear weapons is heavily questionable if the UK were ever to set off their nuclear weapons then who would be responsible for the deaths and injuries (short-term and long-term) of citizens all around the world- it is not moral, democratic or ethical for one state to have excess dominance and power over other states or to use nuclear weapons as a form of threat. Therefore, the UK should unilaterally abandon its nuclear weapons to promote cooperation and peaceful relations on an international level.

Furthermore, in the modern age, international organizations such as the United Nations and NATO implement international laws to deter nuclear action. Some may argue that international law is not legally binding but acts more as moral guidelines. However, this view is outdated as the Treaty of abolition of nuclear weapons (2017) is the first legally-binding treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons, ultimately aiming for total elimination. Although not in effect the message is clear that many states are willing to cooperate and work towards the complete abolition of nuclear weapons. Moreover, actions implemented by the UN are passed when earning majority support- the UK has a seat on the UN Security Council, meaning the UK has supported notions to abolish nuclear weapons as they hold the power to veto. Non- political international organizations such as the Red Cross argue that nuclear weapons should be eliminated through a binding agreement on moral terms.

On the opposing side, multiple ‘For’ arguments were presented however, many arguments lacked appropriate evidence. One weak argument presented was that nuclear weapons are part of the UK’s security system and support the anarchical world order. Although many states do not face a higher body the UK is accountable to higher bodies- EU institutions such as the European Court of Human Rights and the European Court of Justice, so when considered this point does not link to that statement as is it not the case for the UK.

Another indirect point is that nuclear weapons protect us from uncertainty, examples provided were those such as with North Korea and the US, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Arms Race between Pakistan and Iran. Yet it is, in fact, the possession of nuclear weapons that creates tension as the threat instills fear and calls for greater measures to be taken. Such rises in tension due to nuclear weapons are apparent under the Cuban Missile Crisis.

A successful point presented by the ‘For’ side was that it must be understood that unilateralism differs from multilateralism- a constructivist point of view. This supports the idea that the UK should multilaterally abandon its nuclear weapons- meaning the UK will not be defenseless in comparison to other countries. Yet, without nuclear weapons countries are not defenseless but can better invest into cheaper more moral forms of defense or other policy areas.

A superficial point presented is that renewing trident each year creates 30,000 jobs in the UK. Consequently, when thoroughly considering this fact is becomes clear that this work is only part-time and will not be the main source of income for the workers. Surely the money and workers invested in the Trident would be more beneficial invested in greener industries and provide safer conditions for workers. This idea is reiterated by Schwartz, who states that there are ‘problems of managing large quantities of radioactive and toxic waste, arising from their production’ which consequently leads to ‘compensation for persons harmed by their production and testing’ (Schwartz, 2011).

One economic argument put forward was that unilaterally abandoning the UK’s nuclear weapons would destroy local economies. It was said that in Argyll and Bute in Scotland that Trident employs 4,700 people- making up 34 percent of the local population. However, this figure is not representative of the Trident industry nationally, therefore, figures would decrease massively. Additionally, the abolition of the UK’s nuclear weapons would not destroy local economies as employees of the Trident are only partially employed by the government and will have another field of work that their main source of income is.

A key question covered in the debate was when should we disarm? Now as a sole country or as an alliance with other countries? Personally, the best decision would be for the UK to follow in the steps of Japan and Germany and as a key member of the UN Security Council, the UK could use its position to influence other states to follow. The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of nuclear weapons (NPT) signed in 1968 shows there is an appetite for such change from 38 countries.

In conclusion, when it came to the free vote, my vote remained to unilaterally abandon the UK’s nuclear deterrent as mutually assured destruction is so great, we may as well abandon our nuclear weapons and invest in greener industries and policy areas that seek funding due to austerity- such as healthcare. Also, if the UK was to consider reviewing its nuclear deterrent who would make the decisions? If the question was posed to the public through a referendum, they could be influenced by biased media reports. Yet if the decision was to be made by elected officials or ‘experts’ they may not represent the views of the nation. The overall majority of public opinion remains unclear as typically if a political leader supports disarmament, they are less supported- Corbyn is a prime example of this.

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