Cameron and nuclear weapons

I was just thinking about Tony Benn’s question to David Cameron back in November.

Tony Benn, former Labour minister
Under what circumstances, and against whom, would you be prepared to use British nuclear weapons?
“As Tony Benn well knows, the point of having nuclear weapons is to deter people and not to use them, and I’m afraid it’s just one of the many subjects where he is splendid to read but splendidly wrong.

At the time, I thought Cameron handled Benn’s question quite successfully. However, thinking about it again, how can nuclear weapons be a deterrent if there are no circumstances in which they could be used? Surely in order to deter people there must be some circumstances in which Cameron would use them. So what are they, Cameron?


8 thoughts on “Cameron and nuclear weapons

  1. I was thinking about this recently, seeing as how we’re spending an awful lot on nuclear weapons we’ll never use, and yet lots of people aren’t entirely sanguine about giving them up. I mean, obvious candidates for “when we’d use them” would be something like (a) Britain or a close ally is invaded (b) in retaliation (hopefully not-all out) against a nuclear strike against Britain, a British ally, or their army. There may be some other cases…

    But if you’re going to have nuclear weapons at all, it seems the only possible sensible answer to “would you use them in situation X” is to dodge the question. If you say “yes”, and X happens, then either you slaughter millions of innocent people, or you try and find another solution and everyone believes you’ll never use them and X can happen again. If you say “no”, then they don’t deter anyone at all.

    I mean, I don’t like non-openness, but this seems like one of the cases where deliberately not being sure if much better than having a policy. After all, anyone who is deterred by nuclear weapons at all, probably doesn’t want to attacking someone who MIGHT use them, so being vague is just as useful as saying “yes”.

    So I definitely _don’t_ think they’re useless, even if they’re only ever a deterrent. But I don’t know if they’re worth the outrageous cost.

    I think of them as basically an insurance policy: I think currently the odds of Britain being invaded are _really, really low_, even if we didn’t have any weapons of mass destruction. But I think we can agree that if we were, it would probably be really, really bad for us. So, how much are we willing to pay for that security? Right now, it seems unlikely, but it’s only been 60 years since WWII — can we really say western europe will never go to war with anyone again? Are we happy to say “oh, well, I’m sure America or France will always protect us, and if it matters will never take advantage of the fact that we’re dependant on them”?

    I really don’t like the idea of paying extortionate sums for weapons which will never be used and if they are used will just kill lots of people 😦 But also, I’m not sure what the trade-off is 😦

  2. The immediate answer is:

    “In retaliation for any nuclear, biological or chemical attack against the United Kingdom”

    The actual answer is that the Prime Minister – or the surviving civil authority – may release the nuclear stockpile for use when requested by Britain’s armed forces. Note the word ‘may’.

    The armed forces will only request the use of special weapons in the event that nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons are used against the United Kingdom and its allies, or if – in their judgement, based on military intelligence and as a military matter- there is an immediate danger of their use and there is a clear case for pre-emption.

    The latter part of that – a pre-emptive request – should be viewed as plausible speculation; I doubt that I have ever heard any substantive comment by a diplomat or senior politician that admitted any other cause than retaliation, and I hope that I never do.

    Nevertheless, I do not doubt that the armed forces would request the release of nuclear weapons if they saw an immediate threat to the existence of the United Kingdom – if they thought that a nuclear strike would work to block that threat; and if they thought that it would be effective *overall, and in consideration of the likely consequences*.

    Note that these arrangements do not allow the Prime Minister to order a nuclear strike. He might instruct the armed forces towards some apocalyptic objective but this is a case where they actually would insist on their perogative to (a) refuse a mission as unachievable, if they believe it to be so; (b) direct their military operations as they see fit, with the tools they consider best – which might not be weapons of mass destruction; (c) refuse any course of action which would constitute a war crime; and (d) insist on Parliamentary authority, rather than executive order.

    Note that ‘Parliamentary Authority’ might mean ‘we have consulted the Leader of the Opposition and he or she concurs ‘ – in an emergency, there are streamlined decision-making structures – but it’s not a decision left to one man or a cabal of fanatics who happen to have secured the offices of PM, Foreign Secretary and Defence.

    If you read that carefully, you’ll spot some ambiguities. Think why they are there, before you point them out.

      • Maybe notionally, in the same way as she could technically refuse Royal Assent for an Act of Parliament or dissolve the commons on a whim, or send a policeman out to the Mall to pull in the 200 commoners closest to the palace and give them all life peerages for a laugh.

        Were she to actually exercise any of these rights there’d be some kind of constitutional crisis which would probably lead to either the abolition of the monarchy or the monarch being persuaded to abdicate to save the institution.

        • “Were she to actually exercise any of these rights there’d be some kind of constitutional crisis which would probably lead to either the abolition of the monarchy or the monarch being persuaded to abdicate to save the institution.”

          Well, yes, definitely, which is why she never DOES use it. I think of it as her having one veto, ever. But surely a nuclear warm, if she thought it was wrong, was one of the few things that might be worse than a constitutional crisis?

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