The ethics surrounding the nuclear weapons debate

Members of the Nuclear Weapons Working Group are presenting their personal views as part of a wider consultation process into the party’s future policy on nuclear weapons. The full consultation paper can be found at and the consultation window runs until 28 October. Party members are invited to attend the consultation session at party conference in Brighton, to be held on Saturday 17 September at 1pm in the Balmoral Room of the Hilton.

The UK’s options for the successor to Trident are (boiled down to essentials):

  1. Same as now – nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines, only new.
  2. Keep most or all of the kit but stop continuous nuclear armed submarine patrols, unless circumstances change.
  3. Shift from missiles in submarines to bombs dropped from aircraft.
  4. Don’t keep nuclear weapons but do keep the expertise and the radioactive materials needed to make them, just in case.
  5. No nuclear weapons. Unilateral disarmament. The zero option.

I have been invited to write about these options in the light of ethical and humanitarian concerns.

Nuclear weapons are not really weapons of war. They are beyond war. They are means of annihilating life as we know it on this planet. There are about 15,000 nuclear warheads in the world today, which in a full nuclear conflict could comfortably exterminate us all.

They are so destructive that their use in pursuit of a traditional victory is impossible. They are not made to be used, but to make threats with. 

The case for the nuclear arsenal rests on deterrence theory: to dissuade foes from certain courses of action, without ever actually being used, in order to make the holder of the deterrent safer.

The doctrine of mutually assured destruction (MAD) assumes that if attacked by a superweapon, the defending state would be able to fire back with a superweapon, and both sides would end up annihilated, so the threat results in tense peace. There are problems with this doctrine such as whether the defending state would have time to retaliate, but no one wants to try it and find out. So we get non-nuclear conflicts and proxy wars.

So far as the UK’s part in this elaborate game of bluff and counter bluff is concerned, all depends on the UK’s leadership saying they are prepared to use nuclear weapons and being believed. Whether they really would is for potential foes to guess.

From the humanitarian point of view it is imperative never to use a nuclear weapon.

As for ethics: on any theory a liberal or democrat could accept, we cannot attribute collective guilt for the aggression of dictators to the whole population they control, including dissenters, children and babies, not to mention other life forms. We cannot make an ethical argument for using an indiscriminate superweapon against populations, even in retaliation for an attack on us.

So the ethical case must focus on being prepared now or in future to spend what it costs to have a superweapon and to bluff without having a genuine intention of firing it. Again, the ethical obstacles to this are huge.

The MAD doctrine was questioned in the Wall Street Journal in January 2007 where Henry Kissinger and other cold war veterans asserted that nuclear weapons had become a source of intolerable risk, thanks to the risk of accidents, misjudgments or unauthorised use.

There have been accidents; there are ever present risks of sabotage, theft or human error; and the fact that no major detonation has occurred is at least partly due to luck. Weighing the risks, apart from that of attracting an attack, it is legitimate to ask whether the UK’s possession of nuclear weapons makes us safer. Should our government bring these weapons on to our territory, with their attendant risks?



* Jo Hayes is a party activist, Chair of the East of England Regional Party and a member of the party's Federal Board.

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  • Eddie Sammon 15th Sep '16 - 6:08pm

    The problem with the zero option is there tends to be a deafening silence when it comes to what will replace nuclear weapons to maintain Britain as a major military power, unless the idea is to stop being a major military power.

    But how can we then say we want to influence the likes of Putin in the Middle East if the west decides to stop being a global military power?

  • Conor McGovern 16th Sep '16 - 12:31am

    How about we actually pledge to hold a conference and disarm along with other countries instead of spouting empty words? Failing that we should disarm ourselves. Our conventional forces are relatively underfunded, our public services are crumbling and still we cling on to a Cold War relic.

  • Dave Orbison 16th Sep '16 - 7:25am

    Eddie Sammon, I don’t think Putin is listening. If he did it’s certainly not because we have less than 1% of the world’s nuclear arsenal. So what is the goal? Spend all this money to be a military power for the sake of being a military power? Options 2-4 simply ‘pretend’ to maintain such a power but in reality reduce of nuclear capability from small to negligible.

    We haven’t succeeded in persuading anybody to disarm. Yet we underfund our conventional capability, we are ill equipped to deal with modern threats and our health, housing and public services are in crisis.

    Germany and the rest of Europe, excluding France, manage without any desire or aspiration to become a military power.

  • A prominent Tory MP said, about N. Korea, ” “N. Korea seem to think possessing a nuclear weapon makes them safe. Having a nuclear weapon makes them a target”

    This same MP (Philip Hammond) when Defence Secretary was one of the most pro-Trident advocates….

    It makes one wonder whether MAD doesn’t just mean ‘mad’…..

  • Dave Orbison is right and the answer to Eddie Sammon is that we rebuild our conventional forces back to effectiveness against the kind of threats that are likely to present themselves. We have about 11000 miles of coastline but the Royal Navy coastal protection force is virtually non-existent and the coastguard has been run down. Last year the National Audit Office revealed that a £3.2bn joint Babcock-Lockhead scheme to train UK military aircrew was running 5yrs late & we might run out of pilots. The Elizabeth Class aircraft carriers were originally to be operational in 2014 & cost £2.9bn. None are yet in service, they have no aircraft or crew, and current cost estimate is £6.2bn. The army has already reached its 2020 target of 82000 – down from 102000 – but the promised ‘reservists’ to make up the difference have not materialised. One could go on for pages. Finally the evidence that ‘cyberwarfare’ is an increasing focus of Russia & others escalates almost on a daily basis. How do you ‘nuke’ a computer from a ‘Trident’ submarine?

  • While many of you would disagree vehemently, I truly believe that it is unethical for our country not to commit at-least 2-4% on defending ourselves.

    Do anyone know if Trident is capable/armed with ultra low yield warheads, for strategic bombings? If so, that would massively cut down on civilian casualties.

  • Marc F….

    TRident is not a ‘strategic strike weapon’ it is a ‘dead man’s vengeance weapon’….

    It is supposed to deter an aggressor in that, even if the UK has been destroyed, nuclear retaliation on their population will follow….There is not much point in striking military targets after the event….If it is ever used it will mean that we have lost…

  • People start out with good intentions at the start of the second world war the UK did it’s best to avoid bombing civilians by the end we area bombed whole cities. The only rule in war is win.

  • Peter Watson 22nd Feb '17 - 1:04am

    @expats “TRident is not a ‘strategic strike weapon’ it is a ‘dead man’s vengeance weapon’….”
    Which might have made sense when it was obvious who to fire at if the submarine commander had missed “The Archers” for a few days, but who would be the target for retaliation now?

  • Lorenzo Cherin 22nd Feb '17 - 1:43am

    If I honestly thought those advocating unilateral disarmament were more like the one or two outstanding members on here , such as Catherine Jane Crosland, I might be persuaded after opposing it since I was a Kinnock teenage Labour member in the mid to later eighties ! Actually, many seem to want us in security and defence to become what Corbyn himself , on our economy post Brexit, has said the Tories want us to become, a bargain basement ! I want this country to be what it has been since my father served in the Trieste British military police after the war , in Italy, as a young Italian man thrilled his country had rejected Mussolini who he was made to salute , and did , in person in the Mussolini Youth he was conscripted in, in other words , the country my father emigrated to, Britain, a force for good in the modern world.

    If we remove all nuclear weapons we are more or less traduced on the security council of the UN. The what . We are a supposedly independent country not in the EU, with no seat on the UN security council the likely consequence, no influence bar the Commonwealth , likely to be dominated by the nuclear power that is India ?!

    If we are to spend much , and I mean , much, more on conventional forces and equipment, and if those , unlike Corbyn who do accept our history is a force for good in modern times more than bad, and see some role for us as the country I see us as , with a better government, and have the sort of , yes, patriotic sentiments too often the preserve of the right, if they , any , who want rid of these weapons with nothing in return from other countries, give those of us who do not want that, a very definite something in the way of enhancing the country I see us as, convince me !

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