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Could Britain Be the First World Power to Wake Up From the Nuclear Nightmare?

03/08/2015 10:45 BST | Updated 02/08/2016 10:59 BST

Is this a preposterous idea whose time has come? The UK is a world power, one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. Like the others, it shares "primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security."

Like the others, it has the power to veto any action.

Like the others, it is also free to plunge the world unilaterally into the unimaginable devastation of a nuclear war.

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Is there a way out of this nightmare? This is a good week to raise the issue. It's the anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima (above) and Nagasaki. They were the living laboratories used to test two of the most deadly weapons of mass destruction ever developed. Seventy years on, the two bombs are estimated to have taken the lives of 185,000 people.

There is another prospect. It is now a mere six weeks before we know whether the next leader of the Labour Party will be a politician publicly committed to changing course when it comes to Trident - the UK's aging nuclear submarine force armed with Trident II D-5 ballistic missiles.

Speaking against the renewal of Trident in the House of Commons on 20 January this year, Labour leader contestant Jeremy Corbyn said:

"We were elected to this place try to improve people's lives; we were elected to represent our constituents and to ensure that they have homes, jobs, schools, hospitals and security. A secure world is not created by an arms race, and it is not created by creating more and more threats. A secure world is created by looking at the issues that divide the world--the racism that divides the world; the poverty that divides the world; the environmental destruction that divides the world. Can we not look in a different direction and deliver a different foreign policy, rather than hold to the arid idea that all we need to do is to spend phenomenal sums of money in order to threaten to destroy the whole planet?"

Dealing with any number of bullies

Of course, no one ever gets up and says they like the idea of wiping out millions of people. Indeed one of the primary arguments used for the value of nuclear deterrence is that being strong oneself is the best way of dealing with any number of bullies.

Speaking in the same debate, Michael Fallon, the Secretary of State for Defence reminded the house: "Today's debate is about the primary responsibility of any Government: the security of our nation, our freedoms and our way of life. It is not about short-term politics. Whatever the current threats to this country, we cannot gamble with tomorrow's security. That is why this Government, and all previous Governments for the last six decades, have retained an operationally independent nuclear deterrent, and today this Government are committed to maintain that credible, continuous and effective minimum nuclear deterrent based on Trident and operating in a continuously at-sea posture for as long as we need it."

So we are urged to rest secure in the knowledge that if the world has nuclear weapons, they will not, actually, be used. The trouble with that argument is that, as the dreadful testimony from Japanese survivors shows, they have been used. And we know that they were used by a democratic government whose leaders were certain of their unprecedented killing power.

The world's major crises

Let's look at the world's major crises. Are nuclear weapons helping with these? Neither as a deterrent, nor in use, are nuclear weapons an answer to the major world challeanges we face. The nuclear threat is not an answer to environmental degradation or terrorism. Nor is it a solution to the persistent conflicts that are not only taking countless lives, but are also driving vast numbers of people from their homes and nations. The United Nations says the world's 60 million refugees and forcibly displaced people is the highest level recorded since World War Two.

Nor have they made the post Second World War world safer and more secure. In the 70 years since that global conflagration which claimed the lives of over 60 million people, there have been 159 further wars around the world, within and between nations.

The dramatic shift in the conduct of war that began in the 20th Century has continued unabated. The overwhelming majority of those killed, maimed and forced to flee are civilians. As with all weapons of mass destruction, nuclear weapons guarantee this.

Our greatest humanitarian project

Bringing ourselves to the brink of self-destruction has not even changed our spending priorities as a species. At the outset of the 21st Century, the United Nations agreed on eight Millennium Deevelopment Goals for addressing extreme poverty in its many dimensions - income poverty, hunger, disease, lack of adequate shelter, and exclusion --while promoting gender equality, education, and environmental sustainability. This year is the target date.

Four years into this noble undertaking, the US-based Economists for Peace and Security calculated that in 2003 the world devoted more than $900 billion to military expenditure. If we were to devote that amount to the Millennium Development Goals for only one year they would be completely accomplished. Known at that time as Economists Allied for Arms Reduction (EAAR), here's what their research showed:

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This was the picture 12 years ago. Global military expenditure has since rocketed to an estimated $1,776 billion in 2014, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. In the same period, the world has fallen far short of accomplishing our greatest humanitarian project, the Millennium Development Goals.

A new force in British politics

No pollster can accurately predict whether Jeremy Corbyn, who also happens to be the Vice-Chair of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, will become one of the UK's most prominent national leaders in September.

What we do know is that there is a newly emergent force in British politics. The 56 MPs of the Scottish National Party represent a party that holds that the Trident nuclear missile system - based at Faslane in Scotland -- is "unusable and indefensible". The party has pledged to make halting the renewal of the Trident nuclear weapons system an "absolute priority".

You need only do the maths. In a parliament whose ruling party has a majority of 12, its chances of renewing Trident are increasingly slim.

For the first time, a global power might need to change course and accept that it can still change the world for the better and be a force for peace and security without possessing its own weapons of mass destruction.