UK PONI Roundtable

Last Tuesday evening the UK Project on Nuclear Issues (UK PONI) hosted a roundtable event with British nuclear policymakers on the subject of Trident. Participants included:

  • Rt Hon Margaret Beckett, MP – Labour MP for Derby South since 1983. British Foreign Secretary from 2006–2007, and first female to hold the position. Served in Blair’s Cabinet. Involved in the 2009 MP Expenses scandal.
  • Rt Hon the Lord Browne of Ladyton (Desmond “Des” Browne) – Labour MP for Kilmarnok and Loudoun (Scotland), 1997–2003. Secretary of State of Defence, 2006–2008. Secretary of State for Scotland, 2007–2008. Served in Blair and Brown’s Cabinet. Signatory of Global ZeroRejected as UK Special Envoy to Sri Lanka.
  • Rt Hon the Lord Owen (David Owen) – Labour Crossbench Peer in the House of Lords since 1992. British Foreign Secretary, 1977–1979. Co-founder of the Social Democratic Party (which after a merge became the Liberal Democrats); Leader from 1983–1987, 1988–1990. EU co-Chairman for the Conference for the Former Yugoslavia, 1992–1995. MP (various constituencies), 1966–1992.

The event was chaired by the Lord Hennessy of Nympsfield, professor at Queen Mary’s. The Tories were notably absent (that is not a complaint). The event took place in the House of Lords, only slightly uncomfortable choice of venue on the 5th of November.

The roundtable was introduced by M. Richard White of the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE), stating that the roundtable was a forum of tech-heads meet policymakers. Below are what I thought to be the highlights of the discussion.

Owen, charismatic and entertaining, opened up the dialogue by saying he is confident that a nuclear weapons accident is inevitable. His assessment of Trident was that nuclear deterrent usually goes way over budget, and that it is impossible to justify the high cost of a submarine fleet which does nothing else. He also pointed out that the US contributes 85% of NATO’s budget and that NATO will not subsidize the UK’s deterrent. He closed the comment by suggesting nuclear cruise missiles as a possible alternative to Trident.

Beckett came across as quite the hawk with a confident air reminiscent of another Margaret in British politics. She began by stating: “I left the CND [Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament] when it became pacifist, because I’ve never been a pacifist.” She went on to say that the greatest threat of the 21st century is climate change (“expect massive Chinese migration”), and though she doesn’t advocate Trident, the motors are made in her constituency and she’s not too bothered about what they’re used for once they’re made.

Browne began with the solemn thought that after the Cold War ended politicians stopped worrying about nuclear weapons. He went on to describe the shocking matter-of-factness with which people talk about the weapons, as though they’ve forgotten the massive damage they can cause.

He then made the point that Trident was renewed in 2006 because naive policymakers (himself included) were told that if it wasn’t renewed, the boats would wear out before they could be replaced.  This illustrated his point that independently verifiable expertise is crucial to nuclear policymaking, and the disparity in knowledge between experts and policymakers is too wide. In short, nuclear technology is not so special or inaccessible that policymakers cannot understand it.

Questions from the Audience

The first question taken was from a young Tory woman (I’m pleased to note that this audience was much more diverse than the last event I reviewed): “Who does Trident deter now?” The panel answered that it was indeed a Cold War holdover, persistent as part of the status quo in an international environment still seen as anarchical and uncertain. Owen said that the US should reassure the UK that scaling down its nuclear deterrent would not cost the British their international relevance or their seat on the UNSC.

Another RUSI intern noted that the UK already has less nuclear weapons than most nuclear states, and that the cruise missile alternative might increase uncertainty through miscalculation. Browne disagreed, saying that duel-capable systems were effective deterrence. Beckett was unconcerned about war through miscalculation, worrying instead about India-Pakistan. Owen replied that the MoD lies, and we need to have an honest debate.

The question of disposing of retired nuclear weapons was raised – Browne said they could be treated like land mines or chemical weapons, Beckett reminded us that it’s been done before (see South Africa).

An American woman was appreciative of this debate she feels is absent in the US. Owen said that the reduction in conventional weapons spending has generals challenging the high costs of deterrence, implying that the US has a much larger defense budget and so does not need to choose between convention and nuclear weapons.

Hugh Chalmers of UK PONI asked: “How easy is it to work toward the disarmament goal?” Beckett replied that politicians must be engaged, and too often they are distracted by other issues (namely elections). Browne said that we are stuck in the status quo, and we need space, time, and political capital to change it (but that there’s none left after the 2008 financial crisis). Owen said that the CBTB was close, and he believes that eventually someone will get elected in the UK on the platform of nuclear disarmament, supported by the armed forces who want a bigger slice of the defense budget.

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