For eight decades since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there has been a knife-edge balancing act to prevent further nuclear usage. We are moving further away from it — and at our peril.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Last week, Grant Shapps compounded Britain’s commitment to war-fighting and destruction, as a way of dealing with complex global problems, and indicated his desire for Britain to be in the driving seat in stoking further conflicts. We are in a pre-war world, he stated, not a post-war world. In his first major speech as Defence Secretary, Shapps revealed his world view: akin to President Bush’s ‘Axis of Evil’, but on steroids. In 2002, Bush identified the ‘enemies’ as Iraq, Iran and North Korea. A year later, Iraq was effectively destroyed. Shapps has more ambitious targets on his list: to Iran and North Korea, he has added Russia and China. In five years, he says, we could be looking at multiple theatres of war, including all of these.  

Of course, Shapps has no thought for how potential war can be prevented and how international relations can be reset to stop the drive to war. He thinks only of how to contribute to it, to prepare for it, and in doing so, to make it far more likely. 

His priority is to throw weapons and money at everything, from Ukraine, to Gaza, to the Red Sea, to the Indo-Pacific. He brags of pushing ‘defence’ spending to 2.5 percent of GDP, of exceeding £50 billion a year; and Britain’s power to influence world events is couched solely in terms of military might and destructive power with the added bonus that this can be great for British industry. 

Shapps puts nuclear weapons front and centre of Britain’s supposed military and industrial resurgence. The foundation for gaining a strategic advantage over our enemies is, apparently, our nuclear ‘enterprise’. This description, increasingly used by government, seems designed to make the nuclear arsenal sound less like weapons of mass destruction and more like an exciting business proposition.  

Yet the reality is that the world is closer to nuclear war than it has ever been – and Britain plays a significant role in generating the global dynamic and the policies which are leading us in that direction. This week, as last week’s BBC Panorama documentary ‘Nuclear Armageddon: How close are we?’ reveals, the hands of the Doomsday Clock will be reset, indicating our proximity to annihilation. Currently the closest ever, at 90 seconds to midnight, it is hard to see how the atomic scientists who set the time can make a judgement to move them back. With Israel’s war on Gaza likely developing into a regional war, the role of Israel’s nuclear arsenal – and loose talk about using it – must surely come into the equation. 

In the decades since the Cold War ended, we have become used to the steady decline in global nuclear arsenals as the US and Russia have agreed successive treaties reducing their stockpiles. Britain too, had overseen reductions in its own arsenal, including a substantial reduction announced by the Conservative-led coalition just over a decade ago. That global trend has now reversed. Last summer, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute announced that the number of nuclear weapons available for use had actually grown. The context for this was all nine nuclear-armed states continuing to modernise their nuclear arsenals and deploy new nuclear-capable systems, alongside a rollback in transparency since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 

This trend manifests itself in nuclear arms spending. Last year, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons found that, in 2022, the nine nuclear-armed states spent $82.9 billion on nuclear weapons. But it’s not evenly spread. The United States spent more than all of the other nuclear armed states combined, $43.7 billion. Russia spent 22 percent of what the U.S. did, at $9.6 billion, and China spent just over a quarter of the US total, at $11.7 billion.  

Britain is playing its own role in this reversal. In 2021, the government announced it would increase Britain’s warhead limit by over 40 percent, up to 260 warheads. It has also reversed its long-standing policy of transparency; it no longer gives details on the number of nuclear weapons it possesses, the number of deployed warheads or deployed missiles. But the government is open about levels of spending and last year saw a number of announcements, increasing the spending on nuclear weapons. Last summer, the Defence Secretary introduced a new Defence Command Paper adding a further £6 billion to the additional £3 billion already announced in the spring budget, on top of the regular budget. The big drain of course is the ongoing replacement of the submarine-based Trident nuclear weapons system. Several years ago, its estimated lifetime cost was £205 billion. It will now be well in excess of that.  

Of course, the increased dangers are not limited to the expansion and development of hardware. Nuclear weapons are also political weapons and their use – or threat of use – is driven by political posturing, jockeying for position on the world stage, and straightforward impunity and intimidation. We have seen much of this during the Ukraine war, but we have also seen how discussions about potential use – so-called ‘battlefield’ use in particular – has been used to introduce the idea that nuclear weapons could be used, without catastrophic consequences. When heavily armed nuclear states confront each other, directly or by proxy, there is no such thing as a ‘small’ nuclear attack. 

For almost eighty years, since the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there has been a knife-edge balancing act to prevent further nuclear use. Generations of activists have fought to ensure that they remain unusable. Politicians have from time to time stepped back from the brink to avoid nuclear Armageddon. Underpinning those decades was an understanding that their use would be something too terrible to contemplate that it must never happen again. We move away from that understanding at our peril, and politicians who would take us down that road must be stopped. It is incumbent on all of us to recognise the urgent threat that nuclear weapons pose and take steps for nuclear disarmament.

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