Theresa May has manufactured a reputation as 'a bloody difficult woman'. The nation appears to have responded positively, welcoming the stern, protective mother figure. Such individuals (of either gender) appear to make a public virtue of facing challenging decisions with iron-clad resolve. And there are few more potent symbols as she goes into an election prior to Brexit negotiations than her willingness to launch a nuclear first strike and incinerate millions of innocents. By doing so she shows willingness to go all the way to protect the British vital interest, just as it seems culturally acceptable for a parent to be ready to commit atrocity in protection of their children. The fact that her defence secretary was unable to follow up his statement that the government is in the game of first nuclear strike with any credible scenarios that could call for one is irrelevant to the political signalling. In an atmosphere of discomfort and feelings of insecurity, people seem thirsty for strong leaders.
This opens up a can of worms around the UK's nuclear posture, one that has not been discussed in public for some time. Instead, most of the debate has been focused on whether Britain should have nuclear weapons at all. This is safe ground for 'strong' leaders. To answer the question of whether you are for or against Trident is to risk falling into a trap, a proxy measure of resolve or positioning on any number of related political and psychological questions. But this fails to account for the deteriorating state of nuclear diplomacy, the widening gap between nuclear weapon states and the majority of the rest of the world and the increasing global dangers of nuclear instability and crisis. The manipulation of the public debate over nuclear weapons may appeal to existing prejudice and help in domestic elections, but it could also end in global catastrophe.
States are currently meeting here in Vienna to consider the state of the NPT, and much of the international community has been highly critical of nuclear weapon states, including the UK, for their complacency and failure to act. Next month, many of those states, over 100, meet at the UN HQ in New York to start concrete negotiations on a nuclear ban teaty. British diplomats claim that these talks are dangerous, as they distract from the 'real' work of patiently negotiating concrete measures. But the international community has largely been in deadlock over these measures. It needs strong leadership of a rather different kind to that displayed by Theresa May and her Ministers, one that fully applies Britain's 'soft' power, its wide range of qualities that bring international influence, to break through these deadlocks. Its privileged position on the Security Council and as the initiator of the so-called P5 Process brings particular responsibility and opportunity.
In this context, we at BASIC have just released a joint report with the United Nations Association (UK), called Meaningful Multilateralism, to a meeting at the NPT talks in Vienna. In it we outline 30 proposals for the next UK government, independent of any decision to renew its nuclear weapons. Building upon past British leadership within the diplomatic and technical fields, and its record of leading by example, we draw upon proposals that have been explored and developed over the last 30-odd years. Many of the proposals are achievable in the current climate, others require bold and assertive diplomacy. Some are extensions of previous initiatives by past Labour and Coalition governments. But they all demand a shift from the current cynicism that is apparently on display, in which attachment to existing nuclear deterrence postures is assumed to be indefinite and where suggestions for progress are treated with derision or accusations of naivety.
The most progressive involve Britain considering moves to provide leadership by example. All of the reductions in Britain's nuclear arsenal have so far been unilateral in nature, responses to an improved security context since the end of the Cold War. In today's context the need for progress in managing nuclear arsenals is even higher. In line with other nuclear armed states, it has restricted its ambiguity over nuclear use by declaring that it would never use or threaten nuclear weapons against states without nuclear weapons, with certain exceptions. Greater explicit clarity that the UK's nuclear weapons were only to deter nuclear threat or use by other states would help improve crisis stability and go some way to reassuring other members of the international community. The UK's failure to do so up to this point (and leaving open the possible use of nuclear weapons against some states without them) deeply undermines any claims to legitimate possession.
Further, it is high time the UK adopts no first use of nuclear weapons. Any scenarios that might involve Britain's first use (such as massive invasion by a far more powerful state) lack credibility and harm the prospects for diplomatic progress in multilateral disarmament. Official defence of first strike positions cast legitimate doubt on any commitment to multilateral disarmament in general, and doubt upon any intention to explore the conditions that might help Britain and other nuclear weapon states to relinquish their attachment to nuclear deterrence.
As pointed out by the BASIC Trident Commission back in 2014, greater cooperative effort by government and civil society is urgently needed to chart the UK's leadership and the international route towards disarmament. What would the steps down the nuclear ladder look like, what are the conditions that would assist the UK to take those steps down it, and how can it best bring about those conditions?
It may be highly unlikely this frame will influence this particular election. But its importance will only strengthen after the election, and BASIC will be looking for opportunities to engage with officials and parliamentarians in considering the opportunities outlined in this report.