Already strained international tensions in the Middle East have reached breaking point in the past few years, with the US, UK, Russia, Iran, Syria, Turkey, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Yemen all caught in an increasingly chaotic web of alliances and rivalries.
Tens of thousands of people have already died as a result of fighting in the region over the past decade, and increasingly bellicose rhetoric between world leaders has fuelled fears that even more bloodshed is to come. According to Renata Dwan, director of the UN Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR), the risk of nuclear weapons being used is at its highest since the Second World War.
At a press conference in May, Dwan said that “how we act on that risk and the management of that risk, seems to me a pretty significant and urgent question”.
The UK is one of only nine nuclear-capable countries on Earth, and its nuclear programme – known as Trident – has long been a source of controversy among the public.
Some view the nuclear arsenal as an effective deterrent that has helped maintain peace between superpowers since the end of the Second World War. Writing for the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), Kate Andrews suggests that the presence of Trident allows the UK to “continue to assert its presence as a strong do-gooder in the world”.
“And as long as nuclear deterrence is part of this mission, Trident still seems the sensible option – economically and strategically,” she adds.
For a round-up of the most important stories from around the world – and a concise, refreshing and balanced take on the week’s news agenda – try The Week magazine. Get your first six issues free
But to others, Trident is a relic of a Cold War mentality that sees countries encouraged to take on the “grotesque” task of willing to threaten or use nuclear weapons against an adversary, the BBC reports.
These critics include Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who has said that he could “never be the person to press the nuclear button”, the broadcaster adds.
Yet all the major UK political parties bar one – the Scottish National Party (SNP) – have pledged to keep Trident in place. So what are the arguments for and against this controversial programme?
What is Trident?
Trident is a round-the-clock submarine-based nuclear missile system based at Faslane on the Clyde. There are four submarines, each carrying missiles with nuclear warheads.
Only one submarine is on patrol at any one time and they are normally kept at a “notice to fire” of several days. Trident’s ballistic missiles have a range of up to 7,500 miles and their destructive power is the equivalent of eight Hiroshimas.
Trident patrols began in December 1994. However, none of the components can last indefinitely. The current generation of submarines will begin to end their working lives in the 2020s.
How much will a replacement cost?
The Ministry of Defence has previously said a like-for-like replacement is expected to cost a total of £41bn.
But according to The Telegraph, a report published earlier this year by campaign group Nuclear Information Service put the true price at up to £172bn over the 40-year life of the programme.
What do the political parties think?
Consecutive Conservative governments have followed through on plans to retain Trident, arguing that the UK’s nuclear weapons work as an “insurance policy” against attacks.
However, Trident has been a sticky subject for Labour for decades. In the 1980s under leader Michael Foot, the party’s manifesto advocated unilateral nuclear disarmament, and Labour maintained close ties to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND).
During the rules of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, Labour supported Trident, but current leader Corbyn – who is also vice-president of the CND – has called for an end to the nuclear weapon system.
However, the party’s national policy stops short of scrapping Trident, and a number of Labour MPs have voiced their support for the deterrent.
Meanwhile, the SNP is resolutely opposed to renewing the weapons and has urged Corbyn to join its fight. In its 2017 manifesto, the Green Party also said it wanted to cancel the renewal of Trident, arguing that it is wasting tens of billions of pounds at a time when “families can’t afford to put food on the table”.
The Liberal Democrats and UKIP have backed Trident in recent manifestos.
The pros and cons of Trident
Here are some of the general arguments made for and against a nuclear deterrent:
- Nuclear weapons have guaranteed our security for generations. They remain the ultimate deterrent to any aggressor, and the best means of ensuring peace.
- Putting a check on nuclear proliferation is probably impossible. So scrapping our nuclear weapons would be folly when potentially hostile states might acquire a nuclear capability.
- Possession of nuclear weapons gives us clout. Unilateral nuclear disarmament would “send a foreign secretary naked into the conference chamber”, as then-foreign secretary Aneurin Bevan said in 1957.
- Every British government since 1945 has seen the necessity of having a nuclear deterrent.
- The IEA suggests that “perhaps 30,000” jobs could be created and/or retained through the continued use of Trident.
- Nuclear weapons are immoral and we must prevent their proliferation. The more states that have them, the more certain it is that they will be used. Britain can set an example by unilateral nuclear disarmament.
- Maintaining our nuclear arsenal is too expensive, particularly at a time of continued austerity. It takes a disproportionate share of the nation’s defence budget.
- We are more likely to be engaged in low-level warfare in which nuclear weapons are irrelevant. To meet the challenge of asymmetric warfare, we should spend more on conventional forces and properly equip them.
- Possession of nuclear weapons is an outmoded virility symbol. Countries such as Spain, Canada and Australia do without them and have as much global influence as Britain.