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It is an open secret about Trident that few in British politics ever want to talk openly about. Britain’s nuclear weapons are the remaining military symbols of its political status as a global power. As Ash Carter (US defence chief) says, the UK today plays an ‘outsized role on the global stage’, as a former imperial superpower now ‘punching above its weight’ alongside the US in international affairs. This influence is due less to Britain’s economic standing in the present than its residual ‘moral standing and its historical standing’ from the past.
As the symbols of its ‘outsized’ role, nuclear weapons have acted as the UK’s ticket to the top table of world affairs. It is no historical coincidence, for example, that the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council – the US, Russia, China, France and the UK – are the five recognised, legal nuclear powers. In this sense, those nuclear-armed submarines cruising beneath the waves are like the last outposts of empire.
This is why much of the current debate about renewing Trident is so shallow and dishonest. The issue is not primarily one of economics. Nuclear weapons have always been ‘too expensive’ for the UK. Yet Britain first built them after the Second World War, in the bleak years of rationing and austerity, and has continued to maintain them through boom and recession ever since. Why? Because successive UK governments recognised that, in geopolitical and strategic terms, they could not afford to give up nukes, whatever the cost.
Nor does the debate about whether Trident is really suited to the changing military challenges of the modern world get us very far. Britain’s nuclear arsenal has always been more of a political than a military weapon.
British governments of all political persuasions have long understood that having nuclear weapons was necessary to maintain the image of Britain as a world power in the post-Empire era.
Cutting the UK’s fleet of nuclear subs would signal a more dramatic relegation down the global-power league table. No British prime minister has yet been prepared to face that prospect, instead seeing the billions for Trident as a relatively small price to pay for a place at the top table.
People and states fight in pursuit of political and economic aims. The attempt to reduce this complex process to the existence of nuclear weapons is a symptom of what Marx described as the ‘fetishism of commodities’, by which social powers are attributed to inanimate objects. Just as ‘money makes the world go round’, apparently disconnected from the products of labour that it represents, so nuclear weapons are seen as the disembodied threat to ‘world peace’, removed from the political context in which real conflicts arise.