Trident, Corbyn, nirvana and hell

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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.

5 thoughts on “Trident, Corbyn, nirvana and hell

  1. I’ll join you in the fence sitting. Although I may have to be on the fence about that too…
    In some ways my core beliefs have become stronger, but my application of said beliefs have become far more nuanced as I see the world is far more complicated than it may appear at first glance.

  2. Great post – esp. about the reality that Trident is a sop to our establishment.

    As an aside, the “hell fallacy” lines up well with Lakoff’s work. And esp. the related concept of parental roles. It’s very “Daddy” to say “we can’t have nice things because the world is a horrible place.”

  3. 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

    I’m not sure that’s true. Presumably you’re thinking that the US would retaliate against anyone who launched a first strike on the UK. But are we sure? That would, effectively, be an escalation that would ensure retaliation against them.

    Imagine the US President receives a message saying: ‘In six hours we are going to nuke the United Kingdom. We already have second-strike missiles aimed at Washington, New York, Los Angeles, and most of your other cities. If you retaliate, or if you launch a pre-emptive strike, we will let those missiles fire and we will all die in fire. However, if you just stand by and let London burn, we can all go on living.’

    Are you sure, in those circumstances, that the US President would retaliate on our behalf? It depends a lot on the President: Reagan probably would have, Obama certainly wouldn’t. Clinton, who knows what she’ll do?

    But it’s certainly not guaranteed that there would be a retaliation that, from the US’s point of view, would be escalating the conflict and making themselves a target where they weren’t, necessarily, before.

    1. You might well be right, and our membership of NATO isn’t worth a damn thing. What’s interesting however is that a great many countries don’t have nuclear weapons and don’t get these threats on a regular basis.

      What you’re arguing against is the whole basis of a nuclear deterrent. You might well be right, but that doesn’t exactly strengthen the case for Trident.

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