Fran Sellors is a Young Fabian and member of the contributing writer team. She tweets at @fransellors
In the days leading up the general election last May, much debate around the Labour Party focused on one particular defence topic: Trident. The contrast between Corbyn’s past personal views and the party’s manifesto – the former wanting to scrap Trident, the latter promising to renew it – caused challenges from journalists and the general public alike, ones that only intensified when Emily Thornberry mistakenly claimed that the party’s stance on the nuke may very well change if Labour gained power. All of this confusion seemed to reach its peak during the BBC Leaders’ Question Time programme, where Corbyn repeated the manifesto’s promise to renew Trident but refused to, under any circumstances, guarantee to use it. The debate closed with a rather frustrated audience member berating the pro-Trident supporters with a line that went something like: “I don’t understand why everyone in this room seems so keen on killing millions of people!”
Admittedly, having a manifesto that disagreed with one of the leader’s core values was always going to cause controversy, and it was admirable of Corbyn to stick to the wider party’s wish to renew Trident, in spite of his views. Nonetheless, I can’t help feeling that much of the confusion within the party around their Trident pledge, plus some extremely emotive sentiments against its renewal, could be lessened if both the general public and Corbyn utilised a more rational understanding of the nuclear weapon.
Given the circumstances, for instance, Corbyn’s refusal to admit to any possible use of Trident was nonsensical. A vital aspect of deterrents is that they work only if others believe they will actually be used. To have a deterrent and imply never to use it would be like building a prison and promising never to fill it: it’s senseless, incoherent, and, above all, a massive waste of money. Regardless of what our response would actually be if nuclear fallout ever did occur, other countries must believe that Britain would use Trident in retaliation for a nuclear attack. It is through only this belief, that any nuclear attack would be greeted with a response in kind, that Trident is effective, and countries are deterred from launching nuclear strikes in the first place. If Corbyn’s going to stick to conference’s wishes and commit to renewing Britain’s nukes, then, he must also tell the world that he does intend to use Trident if the time for retaliation ever arises. To mimic what Corbyn said on Question Time in office – to renew Trident without saying it could be used – is effectively the same as scrapping it - only it’s a good few billion pounds more expensive. If the Labour Party votes to keep Trident, Corbyn must not only promise to renew it, but promise to be prepared to use it.
Understandably, this commitment maybe a difficult sentiment for many of the public to swallow; the prospect of nuclear fallout is an unimaginably horrific one, often provoking extremely emotive opinions against nuclear weapons’ killing capacities, such as the one from the audience member aforementioned. Yet, again, it is attitudes like these – that label Trident as nothing but a killing, destructive machine – which fail to understand the very premise of Trident, and deterrents as a whole.
Trident is not a weapon built to ever be used; its purpose is not to inflict mass destruction. Rather, it aims to do the exact opposite: to avoid fallout by discouraging the use of any nuclear weaponry in the first place. By renewing Trident, supporters aim to carry on helping to create a global hegemon under which any country is far, far less likely to activate a nuclear weapon. To assess Trident at the point where nuclear fallout has already occurred is arbitrary, as it judges the arsenal assuming that it has already failed in its primary (and really only) role. In a similar vein, accusing supporters of Trident of being “so keen on killing millions of people” is simplistic and unfair. Supporters of Trident don’t wish for its renewal on the basis that its destructive capabilities will be realised, but on the basis that its existence makes nuclear carnage a much less probable event. Though non-supporters may disagree with the logic or monetary justifiability behind pro-Trident views, accusations of wishes of demolition are unfounded.
Trident is always going to be a controversial issue within the Labour Party, and one impossible to satisfy all members with. But the debate around it is made only more confusing and frustrating by irrational and illogical ideas surrounding the weapon. If Labour are going to stick to renewing the weapon, they must also stick to a willingness to use it, and not pander to unreasonable views surrounding its operation.