Tag Archives: trident

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.