Tag Archives: trident

nuke

Trident, Corbyn, nirvana and hell

This article by Ian Leslie in the New Statesman reminded me of an idea I’ve been meaning to write a blog post about for a long time. That is, that politics is in the state it is because our society is split between people who think politics and policy is impossibly easy – and thus the fact that bad things happen is because politicians are fundamentally bad people – and the people who think politics and policy is impossibly hard – and thus everything needs to be left to the Serious Men.

Ian Leslie gets it half right; I recognise plenty of the nirvana fallacy in a lot of what Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters have to say. But there’s also the other fallacy. I don’t know if it has an official name, but its the idea that because a problem is superficially hard, only the most nihilistic and misanthropic solution is the answer.

I’m a terrible fence sitter, and as I get older I’m getting worse. That accounts for a lot for why I don’t blog as much these days. When it comes to both Trident and the Middle East, my position is that… I’m not sure. I get the argument that Ian Leslie puts forward here against unilateral disarmament. But the counter argument is that maybe, if the Superpowers weren’t around to slap anyone down who starts threatening nuclear war themselves, the sabre rattlers would be forced to take responsibility for themselves. The logic of mutually assured destruction is that the world has to live in a state of perpetual infantilism with Grown Up colonising forces effectively watching over us. And that idea works fine as long as the Superpowers themselves aren’t run by bloodthirsty sabre rattlers like, er, Donald Trump. Or Vladimir Putin.

I’m not convinced that supporters of unilateral disarmament are blind to the fact that someone deciding to press the button knowing that they won’t receive any retaliation isn’t a very real threat. It’s just that, well, we sort of live under that threat anyway; what if some rogue state just becomes so nihilistic that it decides to unleash hell anyway? I just don’t buy this idea that people exist who hate humanity so much that they’d be willing to kill millions yet are dissuaded by the threat of their own annihilation. And it doesn’t take a nuclear weapon to kill a tinpot dictator: I guarantee you that any tinpot general who lets off a nuclear bomb will have at most six months to live before the special forces of the country they aim their weapons at knocks them out.

I’m not saying anything new here. It was all summed up in Dr. Strangelove 51 years ago. And that was about the logic of MAD on the US. The UK’s own nuclear arsenal is just a plaything in comparison. The big joke about Trident is that it literally serves no purpose. It’s not there to reinforce mutually assured destruction if “necessary” – it’s a “strategic” weapons systems designed to, er, what exactly? Just what are we planning to blow up that the US and Russia don’t already have in their sights? If we set off a Trident missile for any reason, the UK gets annihilated. If someone sets off a nuclear missile aimed at the UK, they’re dead even if Trident gets dismantled. We aren’t part of the group of “grown up” nations who get to decide if humanity gets to continue to exist or not; we’re the big children who have been allowed to sit at the big table because we behaved ourselves.

Is it more complicated than that? Maybe (remember my point about being a fence sitter?). I’m glad I’ll never be Prime Minister because I too could never press the button; the moral weight of the decision would destroy me. But the idea that it is as simple as Ian Leslie suggests – that our nuclear arsenal is a bulwark stopping the whole edifice from collapsing – is more intelligence insulting than any anti-nuclear argument I’ve heard. But it’s seductive because it comes across as hard nosed and realpolitik. If Corbyn’s thinking is the “nirvana fallacy” then this is the “hell fallacy”: we can never have nice things because the world is horrible.

This “shut up and eat your dinner” argument is a common one in modern politics. It’s why we apparently have to let the intelligence services read our emails. It’s why we can’t reform our financial services. It’s why we have to force the most vulnerable people to take a cut in benefits and hunt for non-existent jobs. It isn’t the start of intellectual inquiry; it’s the shutting down of intellectual inquiry. And yes, people on the other side of the argument are also frequently to blame for being similarly simplistic and dismissing their opponents’ arguments. But that doesn’t make one side more valid than the other.

Advice to Lib Dem Bloggers re Trident: shut up!

It is now almost a week since Steelgate. In that time, the Lib Dem blogosphere has been obsessed with the topic of Trident.

It was a bad political miscalculation of Chris Huhne’s to make such a big deal of it over the weekend. Almost certainly, his intention was to make the announcement before his manifesto launch so that it wouldn’t overshadow his manifesto. Well, it has.

People can agree or disagree with his stance: I certainly think that Clegg has now made a creditable rebuttal. But if this election ends up being remembered as the Trident election, the party is going to end up looking bloody stupid.

I know it is impossible to ask people to stop thinking about bright purple gorillas with yellow polkadots, and almost certainly just as futile to suggest that people might want to discuss something other than Trident for a bit, but please try.

Clegg: a bad way to make a good point

Nick Clegg repeated his claim yesterday that under Ming the party was too inward-looking. To quote Elspeth Campbell: “I don’t know if you’re being helpful or not.”

I’ve already rebutted that argument and don’t intend to repeat myself. But I’m not blind to the fact is that by repeating this nonsense argument, Clegg is subtly contrasting himself with Chris Huhne and his stance on Trident. The subtext is that he’s the candidate that will concentrate on the issues that matter to the public, while Huhne would have the party revisiting old policies in an act of ideological purity.

And as I said yesterday, in that respect he’s right. Huhne’s Trident stance is, in my view, good policy but bad politics. This isn’t a debate the party should be having during this contest. It smacks of vanity, and at 11% in the polls, vanity is something we can ill afford.

If Huhne wants to talk about policy, he should concentrate on issues which have immediate relevance to large sections of the public. I’ve already mentioned two interrelated ones – housing and intergenerational equity – I’m sure he could come up with others. He should be concentrating his firepower on Clegg’s inability to make his own rhetoric match his detail, calling on the party to move out of its comfort zone and reach out while being apparently afraid of saying anything of substance along those lines in case it alienates a wing of the party.

Huhne’s advantage is that by going for the big tent approach, Clegg has compromised himself. In a large number of areas he will struggle to say anything at all that won’t alienate either David Laws or Steve Webb and their respective camps. He should be pressing that advantage home, not making Clegg’s points for him.

While at the start of this campaign I was guilty of a bit of policy arson myself by rubbishing our existing commitment to replace council tax with local income tax, even I wouldn’t expect either candidate to use this opportunity to set out detailed policy in that area. This is a good opportunity to signal areas that need revisiting, not to spell out solutions.

Huhne: is Trident the right issue?

Chris Huhne clearly believes the Trident issue is key to his success and yesterday I was sent an email from Duncan Brack, Chair of the Federal Conference Committee, endorsing him specifically for this reason. They may well be right and they are certainly right that our current policy of sitting squarely on the fence in the hope that we never have to make a difficult decision is unsustainable. I certainly don’t share Linda Jack’s cynicism – if you are a senior cabinet member you must choose your battles carefully, especially when you have a vulnerable leader and rivals who are alert to any sign of disloyalty (if it is such a major issue of conscience, Linda, why didn’t you resign from the FPC? And why are you backing Clegg?).

Good internal politics it may be, but is it good external politics? There are certainly people out there who feel strongly about nuclear disarmament, but they are relatively few in number. For all my criticisms of Clegg for demanding the party move out of its comfort zone and reaching out beyond our supporter base and then not doing so, I agree with the sentiment. Kickstarting a debate about Trident doesn’t do either, although it does at least address one of my major concerns which is that our policy ceases to face both ways.

It is good that Huhne is looking for dividing lines, just as he did in 2006; apart from anything else it will make the contest more interesting in what was looking increasingly likely to turn into a snore-fest. But if the public perceive that the contest was fought on largely emic party obsessions and not on the issues that matter to them, whoever wins will struggle to hit the ground running in December. He should turn to bread and butter issues as we get closer to the day when the ballot papers are sent out.

Steel backs Huhne over Trident

I’m in the middle of writing a long post about Nick Clegg’s big speech this week, but this announcement is worth breaking off to mention:

“Having enjoyed a talk with both candidates there is also one policy matter which motivates my choice. The current party policy on Trident replacement is that we don’t need to make a decision yet. While that is technically correct, it is hardly a convincing stance to put before the electorate.

“With the end of the cold war, with our armed forces requiring better equipment in the fight against terrorism, and with service families seeking improved housing, it is (as former defence chief Lord Brammall argued in a House of Lords debate) unsustainable to commit billions of pounds on a new generation of so called independent nuclear deterrent. Chris Huhne will be bolder on that issue.”

This is surely correct. What is mystifying is why Clegg does not agree. What was all that stuff about breaking free of our comfort zone last week? This policy represents possibly our greatest act of fence sitting in recent times. If Clegg is so anti comfort zones, does this mean he has come out in favour of Trident? We need a statement on this.