SUBMARINE VISIT: UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson visits the HMNB Clyde in 2019, where he was given a tour of one of the country's four nuclear-powered submarines of the Vanguard class, which is based there and equipped with Trident D5 nuclear missiles.Photo: UK Prime Minister's Office
Understanding Boris Johnson's Nuclear Policy: New Weapons, Old Delusions
Boris Pats Bombs While Britain Burns.
PaulBeaumontSenior researcher, Norwegian institute of international affairs (NUPI)
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Humans only have the bandwidth for one apocalypse at a time. It is not surprising then that the troubling nuclear news emanating from Britain last month received scant attention in the Norwegian media. Yet given Britain claims its nuclear weapons are continuously deterring threats on NATO’s behalf, while a steadily growing number of states have signed up to a treaty banning nuclear weapons, changes to Britain’s nuclear policies warrant special scrutiny.
Instead, if you want to make Britain’s nuclear weapon policy make sense, you need to look inwards not outwards. Just as go-faster stripes please the owner, Britain’s new nuclear policy is better understood as a symbolic gesture performed mainly for its domestic audience. It is crucial here to understand the political function that publicly established force-limits have played British nuclear politics
In other words, to understand the shape, size and above all, chutzpah of New Labour’s nuclear policy, it requires understanding the peculiarities of Britain’s electoral politics and the Labour party’s awkward relationship to nuclear weapons.
It should also be noted that the old narrative of «leading disarmament» was a sham and difficult to defend. Indeed, it certainly did not fool many non-nuclear states. Far from letting Britain lead global disarmament, Non-nuclear weapons states initiated a transnational movement to ban nuclear weapons outright. This resulted in the negotiation of The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear weapons in 2017, which does not differentiate between British and North Korean nuclear weapons. Given Johnson worked as Foreign Secretary from 2016 to 2018, he would have had first hand experience of the difficulty of making Britain’s nuclear weapons make international legal sense; an activity he would no doubt have loathed. As one government insider commenting on the new higher limit put it, «If we have them [nuclear weapons], let’s not apologise for it, let’s own it».
«it is ridiculous for the right hon. and learned Gentleman to talk about our nuclear defences when the reality is that Labour is all over the place...the instincts of the Labour party— [are] weak on supporting our troops, weak on backing Britain when it matters, and weak on defence.»
If the Blair and Johnson government’s nuclear rhetoric may seem worlds apart, they also embody an important continuity. Both used nuclear weapons to tell inflated stories about Britain’s centrality in world politics. Where under Blair Britain used its nuclear weapons policy to boast about leading global disarmament, 2021 review boasts about how its nuclear weapons and other capabilities make it «the leading European ally in NATO». Indeed, Britain has always used more than a little artistic licence with the stories it tells about its nuclear weapons. For instance, when contesting the 1987 election, Thatcher claimed British nuclear disarmament would mean the «cracking of the cornerstone of the Atlantic Alliance». Yet, the only evidence the government could cited showing NATO's support of Britain's nuclear weapons, even in the midst of the «Second Cold War», was a brief mention the 1974 Ottawa Declaration. Indeed, NATO countries tend to tolerate Britain's nuclear weapons rather than endorse them. This manifests in silence, which means that Britain's nuclear delusions have largely gone unchecked by its friends.
Importantly, this «strategic ambiguity» combined with Britain's allies' diplomatic silence, has long granted Britain a free-pass to inflate the role of its nuclear weapons, and by extension, Britain’s role in the world. It enables Britain to tell heroic tales of deterring enemies in the past, present and future all on NATO’s behalf: reproducing a kind of junior, British variant of the «nuclear peace» (correlation), security scholars sometimes debate.
Fortuitously, because nuclear weapons are said to work without being used, their hypothetical effects can never be proven one way or the other. Thus, Britain's nuclear stories are only limited by the governments’' imagination and the gullibility of their audience. Obviously, most of these stories do not travel well, but that does not matter for their domestic function: While Britain’s nuclear weapons are certainly not the cornerstone of NATO, they are key to maintaining Britain’s delusions of grandeur. Ultimately, those looking for a strategic rationale for increasing Britain’s stockpile can keep looking, sensible observers should strike it up as another symptom of Britain’s dysfunctional domestic politics and long-term identity-crisis.