Living on borrowed time

Many of you will have read Kate Atkinson’s novel, Life After Life. If you haven’t, I recommend it. On one level, it is a story of alternative realities, but its real theme is war. In chapter after chapter, the central character, Ursula, meets a different untimely end. Each time, this is followed by a chapter in which, in an alternative reality, the tragedy is averted, and Ursula lives longer, on borrowed time. Perhaps we are all Ursula, in one of her more fortunate realities. I’m sure I am.

I was born in the early hours of the 9th September, 1962. I had picked an inauspicious moment. Within a few hours of my arrival at Epsom District Hospital, a consignment of Soviet ballistic missiles had arrived in Cuba. This led, when I was a month old, to a confrontation between the USA and the USSR, which came close to leading to nuclear war.

On this occasion, disaster was averted. But my friends and I grew up with deadly Soviet weapons aimed permanently at us. Meanwhile, our government had equally deadly weapons aimed permanently at Russian children.

On 26th September 1983, a couple of weeks after my twenty-first birthday, the world again came close to nuclear war. This time, by a complete accident. The Soviet satellite early warning system appeared to detect five missiles from the United States heading towards the Soviet Union. The officer in charge at the time, Stanislav Petrov, would have been expected to report this to his superiors. Had he done so, a retaliatory strike might have been ordered, almost certainly leading to full scale nuclear war. But Petrov chose to “wait and see”. And it turned out the system had malfunctioned. Petrov may have saved millions of lives.

My children were born in 1992, into a world apparently much safer than the world into which I was born. Europe was no longer divided by a wall. The cold war was over. But on January 25th 1995, the world again came close to nuclear war. Norwegian scientists launched a rocket carrying scientific equipment to study the aurora borealis over Svalbard. The rocket was detected by the Soviet early warning system, and mistaken for a Trident missile. President Boris Yeltsin was informed, and Russian submarine commanders were ordered to prepare for retaliation. Fortunately, just in time, it was discovered that the rocket was heading away from Russia.

My family and I, and everyone I know, have been luckier than could reasonably have been expected. We have survived, against the odds, despite the decision of every British government in my lifetime that Britain should continue to possess nuclear weapons. Because of this decision, we would have been a target in 1962, in 1983, in 1995, and still would be today. The choice of successive governments to retain nuclear weapons has nothing to do with any evidence that this makes the people of Britain safer than the people of, say, Switzerland, and has everything to do with making Britain appear to be still a “world power”.

I long to see a world free of nuclear weapons. But a Britain free of nuclear weapons would be a step in the right direction. I want to see my country find the courage to lead the way, and renounce these terrible weapons, the use of which would be the ultimate war crime.

Something must be done, and done quickly, before our borrowed time runs out.

* Catherine Crosland is a member in Calderdale and joined the party in 2014

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  • Lorenzo Cherin 3rd Mar '17 - 1:18pm


    As ever ,concessions to my own multi lateral disarmament stance are not required, almost in a unique way , by me, of , you, such is my respect for you , but , I see a connection, other than all those we have developed on here as colleagues so far, you are , indeed , a fellow Virgo, I was born on the 7th of September, a handful of years only, after you !

    Your article is a very poignant expose of the danger of the keeping of such weapons.However, my question, is , would you advocate unilateral disarmament by bigger powers?

    I think my favoured policy is to keep the nuclear weapons and really negotiate with powers for reductions by them , and elimination of the weapons by us.

    I worry as you do about the possession of them.

    I worry more about the emanation of them with no concessions.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 3rd Mar '17 - 1:20pm

    an error,should be elimination!

  • I have also lived through all three of these crisis events, but was blissfully unaware of them (the last two I hadn’t heard of until reading this article). I have always wanted to die at the time of a nuclear war if there is one and not be a survivor because life would be brutal and I don’t think I would survive the nuclear winter.

    During the cold war I was a multilateralist and become a unilateralist when the renewal of Trident was being discussed as I always believed that the USA would use their nuclear weapons if we were subject to a nuclear attack, but with Trump I am not so sure.

    If the Ukraine had had nuclear weapons would Russia have annexed the Crimea?

  • Because of this decision, we would have been a target in 1962, in 1983, in 1995, and still would be today

    And we would still be tomorrow, even if we unilaterally disarmed.

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 3rd Mar '17 - 2:54pm

    Lorenzo, Thank you for your comment. As not everyone is convinced by the moral argument for unilateral disarmament, I tried to show in the article that not only is it immoral for Britain to possess nuclear weapons, but doing so makes Britain less safe. A country which has nuclear weapons is far more likely to be a target. There is no convincing reason at all for Britain to own nuclear weapons. No other European country has chosen to do so, apart from France. I don’t think anyone really believes this makes Britain more safe than the rest of Europe.
    As for whether I would advocate unilateral disarmament by bigger powers – well, it might have seemed a considerable risk for America to have disarmed unilaterally during the cold war. But there is not the same threat from Russia that there once was. The occasions I mention in the article, in 1983 and 1995, when there was almost nuclear war by accident, would not have occurred if America had not had nuclear weapons. These incidents, especially the 1995 incident, show that Russia believed America to be a serious threat – perhaps Russia was always as much afraid of the West as the West was of Russia.
    Even if it would still seem like something of a risk for America to unilaterally disarm, wouldn’t we all feel safer right now if Trump didn’t have his “finger on the button”?

  • Hi Catherine
    I nearly always find myself in broad agreement with the majority of your posts.
    However in this case I need a bit more insight.
    Please help me to understand how your view makes us less of a target?

  • Simon Freeman 3rd Mar '17 - 2:55pm

    This is a very good article. like Michael I was a multilateralist, and became a member of the SDP in the 80’s, one reason being that I didn’t support Michael Foots defence policies. I continued to hold that view until the last few years of the Gordon Brown government. We could spend the money on so many other things, including maintaining conventional defences and intelligence services and I started to argue for non replacement of Trident.

    Then recently I start to think again . The world is a dangerous place. Is there a lesser and cheaper deterrent? But do we need one?

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 3rd Mar '17 - 3:01pm

    Michael, The incident in 1983 was only made public several years later. The 1995 incident was reported at the time, but it was played down, and the public were not told, until much later, just how close the world had come to war. This makes one wonder how many other such incidents there may have been, of which we may still be unaware.

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 3rd Mar '17 - 3:06pm

    Simon, Thank you for your comments. The world is a dangerous place. But possessing nuclear weapons makes it far more dangerous. If Britain unilaterally disarmed, this would be a step towards making Britain, and the world, a safer place.

  • Even if it would still seem like something of a risk for America to unilaterally disarm, wouldn’t we all feel safer right now if Trump didn’t have his “finger on the button”?

    Trump obviously complicates things, but no, even given that, I wouldn’t feel safe in a world where only Vladimir Putin had nuclear bombs.

    We have had seven decades without a nuclear bomb being used in conflict only because ever nation to possess them knows that to use one would be to invite devastating retaliation. If that were not the case —if either only one country had nuclear bombs, or if the countries which had them could be relied upon not to retaliate against someone who used them (for example, it’s hard to see China retaliating against Russia for nuking Kiev) — then they would undoubtedly have been used by now.

  • Eddie Sammon 3rd Mar '17 - 3:29pm

    I’m very sympathetic towards unilateral disarmament, but it’s not because of pacifism, it’s so we can buy weapons we would actually use. Imagine if you had relatives in Moscow, you couldn’t order a strike there and we should think about those people, the least fortunate of our actions.

    There is a small risk behind getting rid of nukes: what is stopping us being blackmailed by nuclear states? We could even be colonised – just because colonialism happened in and we got rid of it doesn’t mean it can’t happen again and this time to us. We would just have to make sure we fought with what we had, without blowing up masses of kids, which a nuclear strike would entail.

  • Steve Trevethan 3rd Mar '17 - 3:34pm

    Is “our” nuclear deterrent really independent?
    The recent testsn seemed to demonstrate that it is not only a dysfunctional “deterrent” but also one which has its trajectory controlled by the USA from whom we appear to rent it, subject to their controls.

  • Laurence Cox 3rd Mar '17 - 4:36pm

    Catherine Jane Crosland,

    In one of your comments you say “If Britain unilaterally disarmed, this would be a step towards making Britain, and the world, a safer place.”

    But the only time that nuclear weapons were used was by the USA, at that time the only nuclear state, against Japan, which had no effective means of retaliation. A policy opposing first use of these weapons by nuclear weapons-holding countries would be more effective than unilateral disarmament. The real danger is the need to launch on warning, because the nuclear weapons and their delivery systems could not survive a pre-emptive strike, and this is why a submarine-based deterrent is preferable to a land-based deterrent.

  • I find this hard, as a Liberal in most other ways, but I simply don’t buy this pacifist argument that somehow disarming our own deterrent will make us safer
    1. China and North Korea will never willingly give up theirs. They would simply see our action as a sign of weakness and opportunity. Given the situation with Russia and the US at present, I just don’t see how opening up this debate at this time is productive in any way – see points above others have made re Ukraine etc
    2. There is absolutely no evidence that removing our deterrent would make us safer that I can see? In fact the point has been made above that the relative peace the West has enjoyed since world war 2 may well be at least partly due to our perceived strength?
    3. War is a terrible thing of course, but when dealing with irrational (in our eyes) aggressors it surely becomes a game of Poker – the hand you are perceived to hold by the other side determines whether they think you are capable of doing them any real damage. If they believe you can (and especially if they believe you are not calling their bluff), they will almost certainly not risk untold damage to themselves.
    I just think it is illogical to think otherwise.
    I do accept the risk implied by an accident. But this has to be weighed up against the greater, in my view ,potential risk by the perceived weakening of security in others eyes.

    Also from a purely political viewpoint. Is this a mainstream area of policy that is:
    a) capable of bringing the Lib Dem’s together united as a party
    b) the country together
    c) how big a vote winner is it compared to say the NHS (passionately presented by me on Martin Roche’s thread earlier) – Now there IS an area which potentially will do all three!

  • Simon mcgrath 3rd Mar '17 - 6:33pm

    Difficult to take seriously someone who think the worls woyuld be safer if only Putin had nuclear weapons.

  • @ Catherine Jane Crosland
    “There is no convincing reason at all for Britain to own nuclear weapons.”

    Yes there is:
    The Ukraine was invaded and the Crimea annexed and if they had nuclear weapons it is unlikely these would have happened. I expect there are lots of people living in the war zones of eastern Ukraine who wish that the Ukraine had nuclear weapons and so they would have had peace since 2014;
    I expect the Iranian government believe that if they had nuclear weapons then the Israeli air force would stop their occasional attacks within their borders;
    Since India and Pakistan obtained nuclear weapons they had not had a major war (they had three wars between 1947 and 1971).
    Therefore a country with nuclear weapons is less likely to be attacked.
    It now seems a possibility that the USA will not always be in NATO.

  • If I could be bothered, I could write a very long list of countries who both don’t possess nuclear weapons, and have not been invaded for a very long time.

    If we need to keep nuclear weapons in order to avoid being bullied and/or invaded, then why don’t Indonesia, Chile, New Zealand, Morocco, Finland……….. etc.

    Or do some Lib Dems cling to a belief in some form of British exceptionalism?

  • Well given there has been a campaign since the late 1950’s for unilateral nuclear disarmament (ie. circa 60 years) and it still hasn’t happened or show signs of happening, perhaps it would be better to be forward thinking and look towards what we need to have in place in circa 2060 (only circa 43 years away) when the Trident warheads effectively reach end of life and thus in need of decommissioning, along with the submarines currently being built.

    I suspect high on that list will be things like getting the nuclear test ban treaty ratified by all signatories.

  • @Nick
    Well not sure that’s really fair.

    Obviously countries prefer to “invade by stealth” if you want it put bluntly and not all countries have the same level of attraction, wealth, strategic position etc

    So, Finland – probably not feeling too secure at the moment given their history with Russia and their position on the Baltic.
    Chile: Look at the influence and growth of Chinese and Korean companies in the last few years
    New Zealand – hardly the most strategically important position on the planet.
    However, Auckland now has some of the highest house prices compared to average wages in the world, due totally to Chinese and Korean influx. Local’s are very unhappy that they are been priced out of their own market and their lifestyle and culture is being threatened. I have a friend working in a big Auckland school. The education system is now struggling to cope!

    Like I say stealth around the whole pacific rim, the mekong, you name it. In many parts of the world they are so poor it’s only too easy for expansionist countries to “invade” under the guise of providing employment, destroying cultures, communities and livelihoods as they replace them with their own.

    For us it’s a much harder “invasion”. Hence NATO, hence the strength of Europe acting as one etc.

    You may say this is not a direct response to your challenge, but I think the general point is fair. Rich strategically placed Nations have to protect themselves either collectively (ideally) or individually if necessary if they are to preserve their way of life, culture and democracy by any means at their disposal .
    Perception of strength real or implied is crucial to a maintenance of life we hold dear.

  • Oh, and if anyone tried to invade Morocco I’m sure the French would have something to say

  • Nom de Plume 3rd Mar '17 - 8:43pm

    Other than the cost, I am indifferent towards Trident. They would never do anything without American permission.

  • @Mike S – so would you advocate that Finland immediately starts a nuclear weapons programme to protect themselves from the Russians?

    And do you honestly believe that the French would engage in a nuclear exchange with, say, the Russians on behalf of Morroco? Or do you think they would nuke a non-nuclear state like, say, Tunisia if they invaded Morocco?

  • Nick – obviously it’s for other countries to decide how they wish/need to defend themselves/their interests or develop alliances to do so.
    The central point I’m trying to make is that any perceived weakening of our position makes us more likely to be attacked by those who are now stronger – this is simply logical in a war situation, which of course hopefully will not happen.
    I know this stance may seem to some quite intolerant and aggressive , I assure you I don’t see it that way.

    It was Karl Popper who observed that unlimited tolerance would lead to the tolerant being destroyed by the intolerant.

    Unfortunately robust defences are needed to protect an open society.
    If that needs to include a nuclear option then so be it.
    I’d rather take the smaller risk of an accident (in my view) than the bigger risk of an attack.

  • “Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society… then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them… We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant.”

    Karl Popper – Liberal Philosopher

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 4th Mar '17 - 5:16am

    Steve Trevethan, You are right in saying that our deterrent is not really independent. It is controlled by America – and yet we have to pay for it. There could be a situation in which America could insist that we use our weapons in some future conflict, which would lead to inevitable nuclear retaliation against Britain.

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 4th Mar '17 - 5:24am

    Eddie, You suggest that, if we get rid of nuclear weapons, there is a risk that we could be blackmailed or colonised. There are always those worst case scenarios, and I’m not pretending that there are no possible risks at all. But the sort of scenario that you suggest is highly unlikely. Most European countries have chosen not to have nuclear weapons, and they haven’t been blackmailed or colonised as a result. Are you suggesting that they should all acquire nuclear weapons just in case of that highly unlikely possibility?

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 4th Mar '17 - 5:43am

    Michael BG, The case of the Ukraine is often used as an argument against unilateral disarmament. Sadly, it probably is true that if The Ukraine had still had nuclear weapons, it would not have been invaded by Russia. But the Ukraine was in an especially vulnerable situation. We need to focus on what is the right thing for Britain to do, and Britain’s situation is very different from that of the Ukraine. It is highly unlikely that Britain would be at risk of invasion without nuclear weapons. No-one has invaded Switzerland – or any of the other European countries that have chosen not to have nuclear weapons.

  • Simon Freeman 4th Mar '17 - 9:34am

    Catherine-thankyou for you reply. Unfortunately I was cut off quickly in my posting by someone knocking at the door. Over the past few years I’ve gone all over the place in my views on trident replacement from multilateralist view held for many years to not replacing Trident to thinking is there a halfway house. This debate will go on and on and it is important that we tolerate one another and listen.

  • @ Catherine Jane Crosland

    Thank you recognising that some countries are less likely to be attacked if they have nuclear weapons.

    I think it would only be safe for the UK to have no nuclear weapons if one of three conditions are true:
    1 No country has nuclear weapons
    2 The UK has an ally who is prepared to use their nuclear weapons to defend the UK
    3 There are no circumstances in which a country will invade the UK or its allies.

    I have always assumed that condition two is true. It appears you think condition three is true. I now think there is a small possibility that condition two might, one day, not be true.

    If the USA left NATO and the UK and France no longer had nuclear weapons and Russia had Putin type presidents, there is a greater possibility Russia would attack an Eastern European NATO member and we would have to fight Russia. I think the possibility of both are small but I don’t think we can assume there is no possibility of these happening. The past is no guide to the future any more.

  • Catherine
    I appreciate this is a very difficult subject and to some extent we are all reliant on “military experts” and NATO for guidance here.
    I wonder what you think would happen if Russia invaded Latvia at present – arguably a realistic scenario?

  • Steve Trevethan 4th Mar '17 - 11:10am

    Alas, we have been colonised.
    Our patriotic leaders have made us into unwitting cheerleaders of the American Empire.
    Has Russia invaded a Commonwealth country?
    Has the USA?
    Might our nuclear deterrent be a fantasy comfort blanket which facilitates the unobtrusive payment of tribute to the imperial power and not a real tool for protection.

  • Simon McGrath 4th Mar '17 - 1:26pm

    @Catherine ” You are right in saying that our deterrent is not really independent. It is controlled by America ”
    In what way ? – targeting and firing decisions are entirely under our control

  • For those who don’t know, the answer to Steve’s question “Has the USA invaded a Commonwealth country” above is of course yes – Grenada in 1983.

    If only little Grenada had possesed nuclear weapons…………

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 4th Mar '17 - 4:25pm

    Mike S, Thank you for your comments, and for raising so many interesting and challenging points. As I’ve said in reply to some other comments, I’m not trying to deny that there could be possible risks in disarming, but I think the risks would only apply in highly unlikely worst case scenarios.
    Could I possibly ask you, do you seriously consider that Britain is, at present, a safer place than Switzerland because we have nuclear weapons ?
    My main reason for believing we should disarm unilaterally is a moral one. There are simply no circumstances in which the use of nuclear weapons could be justified, as they would inevitably cause the deaths of thousands, probably millions, of innocent civilians, which is clearly a war crime. If we could never use them, then what justification can there be for having them?
    You suggest that a unilateralist policy would not benefit the Lib Dems electorally. Really I don’t think, with this issue, it is appropriate to be thinking about whether or not it is a vote winner. But in fact some polls have suggested that there is a good deal of public support for unilateral disarmament.

  • Eddie Sammon 4th Mar '17 - 5:25pm

    Catherine, I lean towards supporting unilateral disarmament, I’m just saying I have some doubts, but overall I think is probably the best thing.

    We need to use international law to make it illegal to use nukes, otherwise states will be more likely to possess and use them.

  • Hi Catherine
    I would also love to see a nuclear free world, for all the reasons you state.
    However, I guess maybe I’m just less trusting of less open societies. I have tried to empathise but I tend to agree with Michael BG’s “3 rules” above I’m afraid.

    However to answer your couple of questions anyway
    You asked: “Could I possibly ask you, do you seriously consider that Britain is, at present, a safer place than Switzerland because we have nuclear weapons ?”
    My reply: Yes, logically, I do think this is probably has to be the case.

    You said: “My main reason for believing we should disarm unilaterally is a moral one. There are simply no circumstances in which the use of nuclear weapons could be justified, as they would inevitably cause the deaths of thousands, probably millions, of innocent civilians, which is clearly a war crime. If we could never use them, then what justification can there be for having them?
    My reply: I have no disagreement with your moral stance.
    My difficulty is that I do not believe that some potential aggressors (Russia, North Korea particularly) see it the way you do.
    I’m afraid I also believe, terrible that it would be, that if we were attacked outright and unprovoked, that we would have no alternative but to respond. I of course pray like everyone else that this would never ever happen. However, if we simply give the impression we are not prepared to act as an absolute last resort, then we do leave ourselves open to greater risk of attack.
    I do believe the first responsibility of any government is the protection of its people and society and has been as long as humans walked the Earth. Unfortunately in that time the options for doing so have become more and more deadly, but we can’t uninvent the invented, simply put all the safeguards in place that we can.
    I have to say though, that as far as I’m aware, the greater threat at least for now is Russia invading a Baltic state. This will be the acid test of NATO. If he decides to pick one not paying the 2% (Latvia) and Trump calls NATO’s bluff, what then? I shudder to think what may happen.
    Maybe we were naive to assume the cold war was over, with the fall of the wall.
    These are very worrying times I think for us all. I agree with you on that at least

  • With hindsight, accepting the Baltic states into NATO, given their geography and recent history, at a time when euphoria was running high and the threat from Russia appeared to have been removed, may have been not as well thought through as it might have been.
    My understanding is that they would be extremely difficult to defend?

    I think, to ‘walk in your shoes’ for a minute, that your strongest argument (at least to me) is the one you gave to Steve earlier namely:
    “There could be a situation in which America could insist that we use our weapons in some future conflict, which would lead to inevitable nuclear retaliation against Britain”

    This may be true, and I do wonder how many of the British population realise this is a risk. “Once again America fighting wars on in other peoples lands without getting their own hands particularly dirty” is a line which may indeed resonate with many people.
    Just trying to see the other side 🙂

  • should read lands not hands – and before I get angry responses, no I’m not seriously suggesting such a line is used – just trying to see the other side!

  • Denis Mollison 4th Mar '17 - 10:39pm

    @Mike S

    I don’t see the point of NATO if it is not prepared to defend small democracies such as the Baltic states. Provided NATO make their preparedness plain in a straightforward non-aggressive way, Putin would be mad to invade them – and he is not mad.

  • @Denis
    I agree, given that we are where we are now. I sincerely hope you are right!

  • There is a moral argument for why if one of the Baltic States is invaded we should defend them. We failed to defend them in 1940 (we were not in a position to do so after the fall of Poland) from being invaded by Russia. (I wonder if a reason the Baltic States are members of NATO but the Ukraine isn’t is because the Baltic States were independent of Russia between 1918 and 1940.)

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 5th Mar '17 - 7:09am

    Mike S, I am worried by your comment that “if we were attacked outright and unprovoked, we would have no alternative but to respond”. I assume you mean, if the unthinkable happened, and we were victims of a nuclear attack. If this had happened, it would mean that the “deterrent” had failed. In these circumstances, I don’t see what could possibly be gained by retaliating with nuclear attack. To respond in this way would just be revenge. It would lead to a further revenge attack against us, and if we retaliated again it would continue, with millions of innocent civilians dying on both sides.

  • HI Catherine
    To clarify, the point I’m trying to make is that for a deterrent to be effective, your “enemy” in a war situation must believe you are prepared to use it – otherwise there is indeed no point in having it.

  • For the deterrent to work other countries need to assume that if we are attacked with nuclear weapons we will automatically attack them with nuclear weapons so there is no benefit in using nuclear weapons. If a country thought we would not automatically use our nuclear weapons if attacked with nuclear weapons there is no deterrence and we could be attacked much more safely. You have to consider that all the deaths resulting from nuclear weapons are the responsibility of the nation who used nuclear weapons first, much in the same way every death in a war is the responsibility of the country which started the war. If you think you are responsible for the deaths caused in defending your nation you might well decide not to defend it (nowadays we expect governments to wage war to reduce the likelihood of civilian deaths and would like to hold governments to account for avoidable civilian deaths).

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 5th Mar '17 - 2:58pm

    Michael BG, You say that “every death in a war is the responsibility of the country that started the war”. In a certain sense that is true. But even a country that is attacked and is defending itself, has a responsibility only to do so in accordance with accepted principles about conduct which is acceptable in time of war. It is generally accepted that to target civilians is a war crime, even if the country that does so is not the country that started the war. Obviously Hitler was ultimately responsible for all the deaths that occurred in World War Two. But I think it is now generally accepted accepted that Britain was wrong to bomb Dresden, as most of those who died were innocent civilians. By the standards generally accepted today, the bombing of Dresden was a war crime. The fact that Germany had committed even greater war crimes, does not alter the fact that the British bombing of Dresden and other civilian populations was a war crime, for which Britain was responsible.

  • Catherine – Question.
    If the US withdraws from NATO and Britain and France unilaterally disarm, what do you think would happen next?

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 5th Mar '17 - 3:58pm

    Mike S, I think its highly unlikely that America actually will withdraw from NATO. If it did, and if Britain and France unilaterally disarmed, I think it’s still highly unlikely that we would be attacked by a country that had nuclear weapons. (But obviously I don’t know for sure, and one can always think of a worst case scenario.) Could I ask what you think would happen? And could I ask whether you think that every country should acquire nuclear weapons? That is the logical conclusion that your arguments would seem to lead to. But do you really believe that would make the world a safer place?

  • Hi Catherine
    I think the chance of Putin invading a Baltic state then increases exponentially.
    I like you, do not believe the US will not withdraw from NATO, for purely selfish reasons that war in Europe, which some may argue would then be almost inevitable (certainly much more probable than now), would hurt them considerably.
    But this fact, that we have taken for granted for so long, and many would argue has kept relative peace here for over 70 years, is now in some question.

    I believe that by having a couple of European countries acting as a significant deterrent with US back up, if required, that Europe is as safe as can be realistically rationally calculated.

    I do not believe there is any need to expand the deterrent further, because under NATO all countries are protected by the existing umbrella.
    Therefore no, I do not believe further escalation is necessary, but I do believe any deescalation particularly at this time given the uncertainty of US backing, is ill advised, if only for the message it sends out to other nuclear powers with expansionist goals.

  • @ Catherine Jane Crosland I always find your comments interesting and almost without exception tend to agree with you.

    The question of war crimes and morality is exceptionally difficult. It could be argued that if Dresden (a crucial rail junction, a manufacturing centre for V1 and V2 components, and HQ of the German Eastern Command in 1945) was a war crime with 25,000 deaths in 1945 – then so was London with at least 43,000 civilian deaths from German bombing in 1940/41. Frankly I’m not enough of a philosopher to work that one out, although Bishop Bell of Salisbury courageously opposed area bombing including Dresden (and predictably, was turned down by Winston Churchill to become Archbishop of Canterbury)

    What I do know is that there is very little morality in war and the consequences cannot always be certain or predicted – and yet, I am not a complete pacifist (though I respect those who are).

    I had a great uncle who was shell shocked and hospitalised for fifty years in 1916 and a dad who was an RAF pilot (2nd TAF – Typhoons) who died far too young as a result of PTSD. I had an uncle who was in bomber command and a POW in Stalag Luft 111 and took part in the death march west. They were victims too – although Dad always said that having seen Belsen he knew what he was fighting for. I have to say we had to defeat Nazi Germany as a bigger evil and Imperial German too in 1914. Dresden is a very dark grey area.

    As to Trident – it’s not independent, it guarantees MAD (mutually assured destruction if used) and it’s a financial grand folly when I consider the social needs of our country. It’s not even reliable (see the latest test exercise reports). If it was that wonderful, why is it that post imperial France is the only European country to have something similar ?

    And the Lib Dems ? The latest suggested fudge makes me believe the powers that be want to keep an anorexic Trident more out of political fear of the Tories than out of political conviction.

  • @ Catherine Jane Crosland

    I did point out that nowadays we expect a government that is fighting a war to try to reduce civilian casualties. (I have just read that the indiscriminate bombing of cities during World War II was not included as a war crime in the war trials afterwards []) It seems that the 1977 Additional Protocols to the 1949 Geneva Convention address these types of issues, and this why NATO attacks talk about limiting “collateral damage”. It also seems that the use of nuclear weapons could be justified under international law where the “very survival of the state would be at stake”. Therefore under international law there are circumstances where the use of nuclear weapons would not be a war crime.

    If you are not a pacifist you recognise the right to defend oneself and from there a country’s right to defend itself. If it is moral to kill someone trying to kill you then I think it is hard to argue that it is immoral to kill someone while they are killing you, which is similar to the situation with the mutual exchange of nuclear weapons.

  • Mick Taylor 6th Mar '17 - 8:32am

    Well done Catherine. I completely agree with you on this policy. As I will not be at conference due to travelling the world I hope all those who share our views go to conference to put up a strong case for stopping the UK having nuclear weapons. [I also hope FCC has the guts to allow a unilateralist amendment which it never has in the past]

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 6th Mar '17 - 10:57am

    Michael BG, You mention that “nowadays we expect a government that is fighting a war to try to try to reduce civilian casualties”. I do not really understand why you nevertheless consider that the use of nuclear weapons would not necessarily be a war crime. Nuclear weapons would inevitably kill thousands, probably millions, of innocent civilians.
    You suggest that the use of nuclear weapons might be justifiable according to international law, if greater harm might result from not using nuclear weapons than from using them – if the “very survival of the state would be at stake”. I’m not sure if your interpretation of international law is correct. I had understood that these days it was always considered to be a war crime if civilians are deliberately targeted. But anyway it is very hard to imagine a situation in which a country would suffer greater harm as a result of not using nuclear weapons than from using them. If we were attacked, and retaliated by using nuclear weapons, then this would inevitably lead to a further nuclear attack against us, and if we again retaliated, there would be further attacks against us, until the country was completely destroyed. So the “very survival of the state” would always be endangered far more by using nuclear weapons than by not using them.
    As you say, it is usually accepted that it can be justifiable to kill someone in self defense, if they are trying to kill you. It is also usually accepted that it may be justifiable to kill someone if they are trying to kill someone else. You would be taking the life of a guilty person, in order to save the life of their innocent victim. But it would certainly not be considered justifiable to try to stop the aggressor by killing an innocent bystander, such as the aggressor’s wife or child.
    Similarly in a war situation, it is usually considered justifiable to kill someone who is trying to kill you, or who, it can be assumed, intends to kill you. It could be assumed that any member of the enemy country’s armed forces intends you kill you, so to attack them first is legitimate (although, of course, if the enemy country uses conscription, it could be argued that most members of their armed forces are just civilians forced against their will to become killers). But it certainly is not justifiable to attack and kill innocent civilians, including children, just because they belong to the same country as the people who are trying to kill you.

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 6th Mar '17 - 11:47am

    David Raw, Yes, the German bombing of London was certainly a war crime. I assume that those who agreed to the British strategy of bombing Dresden and other German cities, felt themselves to be justified by the fact that Germany had already broken the previously accepted moral code of war, by attacking British civilians. But as I said in an earlier comment, the fact that Germany had committed greater war crimes, does not alter the fact that the British bombing of German civilians, in Dresden and other German cities, was also a war crime.
    That does not, of course, mean that those who carried out the bombing of Dresden and other German cities were bad people. They were ordinary, often very young, men, who had been told, and believed, that what they were doing was necessary to defend their country. I’m sure many of them felt uneasy at the time, and felt terrible guilt later. I’m so sorry to hear about how your Dad never recovered from his experiences in the RAF.
    What you say about your Dad, reminds me of an uncle of mine, who very sadly I never knew, as he died in very tragic circumstances, several years before I was born. My uncle, as a very young man towards the end of World War Two, was in the RAF, and took part in bombing raids on German cities. I don’t know whether he was involved in the bombing of Dresden, but it seems quite possible. I know few details because he was spoken of very little in the family, and indeed there was, sadly, something of a conspiracy of silence about him, because of the tragic circumstances of his death. From what I managed to discover about him, he seems to have been a gentle, sensitive young man, who would not have found it easy to carry out the work he had to do. I guess that he told himself that, in fighting against what was perhaps the most evil regime in history, the end justified the means. But perhaps he found it impossible to forgive himself later. He survived the war, but his subsequent life seems to have been unhappy. He died about ten years after the end of the war, in tragic circumstances that appeared to have a specific cause in more recent events, but which I very much suspect to have had more to do with never having recovered from his wartime experiences. Yes, he, and your Dad, and others like them, were victims too.

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 6th Mar '17 - 1:21pm

    Mick, Thank you for your comment. I wrote the article because I felt that insufficient attention was being paid to the fact that this important issue is being debated at Conference. The motion that is being proposed is very disappointing, and does not seem much of an improvement on the current policy. It pays lip service to a desire for a world free of nuclear weapons, but does not have the courage to suggest the policy that would be a real step towards achieving this – Britain taking the lead, and unilaterally getting rid of nuclear weapons.
    I do hope, as you say, that the FCC will allow a unilateralist amendment to be debated. And I do hope that everyone in the party who supports a unilateralist policy will, if they are able to, come to Conference, and vote for a unilateralist amendment if there is one, or, if there is no unilateralist amendment, vote against this unsatisfactory motion.
    You will know a lot more about this than I do, Mick, but I understand that the old Liberal Party did have a unilateralist policy at one time. It seems a pity that, when the two parties merged, it seemed to be the SDP policy of support for the “nuclear deterrent” that prevailed.
    I hope you and Ruth are enjoying your travels 🙂

  • the policy that would be a real step towards achieving this – Britain taking the lead, and unilaterally getting rid of nuclear weapons.

    I don’t understand the mechanism here. How is Britain unilaterally getting rid of nuclear weapons supposed to lead to, for example, Russia or China getting rid of nuclear weapons?

    I mean, I could see how you could work towards a nuclear-free world if everybody agreed to give up their weapons if, in return, everybody else gave up theirs — provided you trusted Putin to comply, which I wouldn’t, he’d say he’d got rid of all his nuclear weapons but make sure to keep enough back to obliterate the USA if he had to.

    But if Britain gets rid of its nuclear weapons, why would any other country give up theirs? What would be in it for them?

  • @ Catherine Jane Crosland
    “Yes, the German bombing of London was certainly a war crime.”

    It was not at the time. It didn’t become a war crime until 1977. It is wrong to apply today’s laws to people of the past who should only be judged by the laws of their own time. You may consider the German bombing of British cities, the British bombing of German cities and the US nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki criminal, but they were not considered war crimes at the time.

    From what you wrote it might be implied that you do accept the right to kill someone who is in the process of killing you, even where killing that person can’t stop your death, because they are “a guilty person”.

    International law only changes with the agreement of lots of countries and there are quite a few who would oppose making the use of nuclear weapons a war crime. (Also there might be a huge problem in trying to bring to justice the government of a country that used nuclear weapons. Israel has broken international law many times but is not brought to justice.) I would like to see a world where there are no nuclear weapons. However history shows us (and you accepted) that some countries are safer because they have nuclear weapons or have allies with nuclear weapons.

    Deterrence only works if others believe you would use your nuclear weapons. There is no point in having nuclear weapons if you make it clear you will never use them. If so you become a pacifist. If threatened with a nuclear attack, there is nothing you can do. With nuclear weapons you can threatened to destroy much of the aggressor country and hopefully convince them that the costs out weight any perceived benefits they hope to gain from attacking your country.

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 7th Mar '17 - 10:37am

    Michael BG, If we accept that is a war crime to target civilians, I don’t see how it can possibly be argued that the use of nuclear weapons is not a war crime. With “conventional” weapons, it is possible to attack military targets, and avoid civilian casualties, but it is not possible to use nuclear weapons without causing thousands, probably millions, of civilian casualties.

  • @ Catherine Jane Crosland

    I think you may have missed my point. Something is not a crime if a person thinks it is criminal. It is only a crime when recognised as a crime. In a country by the passing of a law and in international law when signed up to by the majority of countries. Therefore the use of nuclear weapons is not a crime under international law. It is no good appealing to reason or logic. You make the case that it should be and I have suggested that enforcement would be a problem. There is no point in making something illegal if when someone carries out that illegal action that person does not face a trial and punishment.

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 7th Mar '17 - 4:11pm

    Michael BG, It is already generally accepted that it is a war crime to target civilians. So even if it has not been specifically ruled that the use of nuclear weapons is a war crime, clearly any use of nuclear weapons would target civilians, and would therefore, for that reason, be a war crime.

  • It is already generally accepted that it is a war crime to target civilians

    The question of whether the use of nuclear weapons could ever be ‘legal’ has actually been considered by the International Court of justice (in 1996) and the judgement was the following:

    “[T]he threat or use of nuclear weapons would generally be contrary to the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict, and in particular the principles and rules of humanitarian law; However, in view of the current state of international law, and of the elements of fact at its disposal, the Court cannot conclude definitively whether the threat or use of nuclear weapons would be lawful or unlawful in an extreme circumstance of self-defense, in which the very survival of a State would be at stake.”

    So there you have it; from the mouth of the very court which would try such a crime, it is not clear that any use of nuclear weapons could be a war crime.

  • Sorry; it is not clear that any use would be a war crime. Clearly any use could be a war crime, but the Court deliberately left open the possibility that, depending on the facts, the defensive use of nuclear weapons in extreme circumstances might not be a war crime.

    It would be a hard bar to clear, for sure (and a good thing too) but it is simply not true that any and all use of nuclear weapons would ipso facto be a war crime.

    The ICJ said so, and they would know.

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 8th Mar '17 - 8:51am

    Dav, I’m sorry I didn’t reply to your comments earlier. It is true that the statement by the International Court of Justice, which you quote, seemed to say that there might be circumstances in which the use of nuclear weapons would not necessarily be a war crime.
    This was an extremely surprising judgment, in view of all that is generally accepted these days about what is, and is not, acceptable conduct in war. It is generally accepted that to target civilians is a war crime, but the judgement seemed to contradict this.
    The passage that you quote does acknowledge that the use of nuclear weapons would usually be contrary to international law, but seems to suggest that there could be exceptions, if the use of these weapons was necessary in self defense. But, as I have said in reply to other comments, it is hard to imagine any circumstances in which a country would be made safer by using nuclear weapons, than by not using them. The use of nuclear weapons by Britain would inevitably lead to a further nuclear attack against us, in retaliation. Then if we retaliated, it would lead to another attack against us, until the country was virtually destroyed. It is hard to see how this could be considered self defense. Anyway, even if nuclear weapons are not involved, surely attacking civilians can never be considered to be self defense. Self defense means fighting back against the actual people who are attacking you. In a war situation, this means fighting back against the armed forces of the enemy country. It does not mean attacking people who just happen to belong to the same country as the people who are attacking you, but who are not themselves attacking you.
    Even if the use of nuclear weapons is not necessarily illegal in all circumstances according to international law, the point is that it is clearly morally unacceptable. But it would help if the use of nuclear weapons could be declared to be illegal. The United Nations conference that will begin later this month, will aim to ban nuclear weapons. Unfortunately the British government have refused to take part in this conference, which could be a real step towards multilateral disarmament. It is true that a ban could be difficult to enforce. But a United Nations ban would make it much harder for countries to justify possessing nuclear weapons.

  • But a United Nations ban would make it much harder for countries to justify possessing nuclear weapons

    But I am not worried about the countries which would feel the need to justify holding nuclear weapons. I am worried about the countries which will hold nuclear weapons whether they are ‘legal’ under international law or not, and who would use them whether or not that was considered a war crime, and who are only stopped from doing so by the fear that such use would bring retaliation in kind.

    Honestly,the argument that it is morally unacceptable for us to hold nuclear weapons sounds a lot to me like claiming that it is morally unacceptable for the police to have armed response units because we would rather criminals don’t have guns, and the police giving up their firearms would put moral pressure on criminals to do the same.

    Can you see why that is silly, and why the same applies to nuclear weapons?

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