AT a time when MPs have just voted massively in favour of wasting untold billions on the renewal of the UK’s Trident nuclear weapons system, it is interesting that the CND protests of the 1980s should pop into the news again
The vote on Tuesday was partly designed to embarrass Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who has always opposed renewing Trident, against the views of many of his MPs, who joined the ‘yes to mutual destruction’ lobby which won by 472 votes to 117. Labour was split over the vote, with 140 of its 230 MPs backing the motion.
The result sealed the deal on the manufacture of four replacement submarines at a “current estimated cost of £31 billion”, according to the BBC. Well, you know what it’s like when you get the submarine builders in: the cost is bound to rocket after some tutting and head-shaking. I do hope we have a contingency fund.
I don’t count myself as a Corbyn follower, partly because the disciples of Jeremy seem wilfully blind to their man’s faults. But I am with him on Trident, which seems like a massive national vanity project.
Defence Secretary Michael Fallon told MPs in the debate that nuclear threats were growing around the world and Trident “puts doubts in the minds of our adversaries”. Does it really? Trident seems like an old-world solution to old-world problems, with the threat to our security likely to come from any number of new directions.
Also nuclear submarines rely on being undetectable – and this invisibility could well be undone by rapid advances in underwater drone technology.
Paul Ingram, the chief executive of the British American Security Information Council, is among those who have warned that watery drones could reveal the whereabouts of submarines that need to stay stealthy to work. These deep-sea drones sound like something out of a James Bond film, but are real enough.
Anyway MPs voted for this wasteful doomsday scenario, partly because they like to be seen as being tough and manly on these matters. Even the women, especially our new prime minister. Mrs May said she would be very happy to press the button or however it is that these things are operated.
The problem with a nuclear deterrent is that once you’ve used it, the thing is no good anyway – and by that point the world will probably have ended. So we waste untold billions on military swagger.
None of this is new, as the latest release of Downing Street files reveal that Margaret Thatcher – you know, Mrs May Mark One – was privately warned by her foreign secretary, Francis Pym, in 1983 that the anti-nuclear movement could become so “widespread and powerful” that it threatened to halt the deployment of US cruise missiles in Britain.
It is easy now to see the days of Greenham Common as some sort of quaint hard-line feminist issue. Yet the CND anti-nuclear movement was a powerful force at the time, worries about the nukes were widespread, and the Thatcher government was concerned.
The new papers contain some splendidly bonkers details that remind us how often governments make things up on the hoof and arrange distractions to deflect attention from what they don’t want us to see.
The distractions suggested to diminish CND, although not acted on, included Thatcher’s press secretary, that Yorkshire growl on legs Bernard Ingham, recommending the release of official footage of royal baby Prince William over the 1983 Easter weekend, in order to keep the CND protests out of the headlines.
An even more bonkers suggestion came from defence secretary Michael Heseltine that he should be filmed at the Berlin Wall on Good Friday when CND was planning a human chain of 12 miles between the nuclear warhead factories at Aldermaston and Burghfield to Greenham Common. Tarzan to the rescue.
Heseltine is an old lion these days, Prince William is all grown up and balding, and still we are arguing over nuclear deterrent. Interestingly, the newly released papers show that concerns about hosting American cruise missiles were more widespread than those CND protestors.
Sir Anthony Parsons, a retired ambassador who advised Thatcher, told her that a “wide spectrum of personal friends” were preoccupied with the nuclear debate. One reason for their concern, he said, was that President Ronald Reagan was “of lower intellectual calibre and less grasp of international issues that any incumbent since the second world war”.
Just imagine if the voters of US were dumb enough to choose someone that stupid all over again…