Understanding Boris Johnson's Nuclear Policy: New Weapons, Old Delusions
Boris Pats Bombs While Britain Burns.
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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.
In short, conducting a major review of its armed forces during the Corona crisis, Britain laid out its strategy for the 21st century. Following the economic shock of Corona, the Britain’s ballooning public debt (approaching 100% of GDP at the last count) and child poverty levels (30% of children), observers might have expected Britain to begin scaling back its delusions of grandeur. In particular, the 165 billion Britain is planning on spending on renewing its nuclear-armed submarines, which it claims “guarantees” Britain’s security, yet could not deter Argentina. Yet rather than scaling back, Boris Johnson’s government decided it was an apt moment to increase its nuclear stockpile from 180 nuclear warheads to 260. Or more precisely, it announced that it would lift the self-imposed limit, such that it could increase its stockpile by 80 should it desire.
So what is going on? Security analysts would ordinarily assume that hard-headed cost-benefit calculations lie behind security policy change, and set about locating explanations in the threat environment. For instance, one might be tempted to assume the new policy stems from Russian revanchism and/or Britain's growing tensions with China. This would be a mistake. While Britain’s defence posturing speaks gravely about worsening global security environments, even if one accepts at face value these new threats, it is far from clear what strategic purpose these additional weapons would or could serve, even if one believes in nuclear deterrence. Each one of Britain’s current 180 weapons is several times more deadly than that which decimated Hiroshima, and can destroy any city in the world within 30m notice. Even allowing for mysterious psychological effects of having more weapons to pat and accepting the ethics of threatening indiscriminate killing of civilians, it is difficult to see how these extra weapons would make any difference to the strategic calculations of Russia, China, or any of the litany of ill-defined threats Britain imagines it might be deterring. To paraphrase the late Michael MccGwire, Britain’s new weapons resemble go-faster stripes on its comfort blanket.
Domestic Politics of Britain’s Nuclear Delusions
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
Back in the 2000s, when Britain began planning the renewal of its current Trident weapon system, it sought to present itself as a particularly enlightened nuclear weapon state supporting the global nuclear disarmament. The government supported this narrative by suggesting that its long-term minimum deterrent doctrine was not a cost-saving device but a symbol of Britain’s moral leadership. Moreover, by reducing its operationally available warheads from 200 to 160, Blair’s New Labour government claimed it was setting an example for the others to follow in meeting their obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Indeed, New Labour even used the the smallness of its arsenal to claim it was «leading» international society to nuclear weapon free world (NWFW).
Notwithstanding that this claim was patently absurd, given the Britain was in the process of renewing its weapons for 40 more years, it offered a means of appeasing the majority of Labour voters, who were and remain opposed to nuclear weapons. The idea of actually going non-nuclear was a non-starter for New Labour elites because they remained traumatized by their landslide electoral defeats in the 1980s, which many still attribute to their policy of advocating «unilateral disarmament». Whether or not non-nuclear security would have proved electorally harmful in the 2000s, New Labour under Blair were determined to avoid looking «weak» on defence. Thus they hit upon radical but incoherent compromise: they would renew Trident for 40 more years, but also claim to lead nuclear disarmament at the same time. Hence, in the 2006 White Paper used to justify Trident, performed a rigorous cost-benefit analysis of all options - including options nobody was calling for - except non-nuclear security. The stench of the elephant in the room was overwhelming to anyone with the slightest critical faculties; it was thus not terribly surprising that 85 Labour MP’s could not stand the smell and rebelled against the governments three-line-whip. While this was the largest rebellion among MPs since the Iraq war, Trident nonetheless prevailed with the help of the Conservative party.
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.
Likewise, where domestic triangulation shaped Blair’s New Labour’s nuclear agenda, Johnson’s aligns with the new post-Brexit contours of British politics and the Conservative party in particular. Indeed, Boris Johnon’s Brexit supporters place a premium upon sticking two fingers up at any international institution that would tell Britain what to do. Thus, it is not difficult to see why Johnson’s government would see the advantage in lifting the limit on its nuclear weapons stockpile. Even if Britain’s «minimum deterrent» strategy has always been as much about budget restraints as morals, the cap on the stockpile has for the last decade been explicitly legitimated by reference to the NPT. Thus, being seen to reject it will help satiate Brexit Britain’s obsession with performing sovereignty. By this logic, the more noisily international audiences and anti-nuclearists complain about Britain failing to meet its treaty obligations, the better for Boris. In other words, raising the limit annoys all the right people.
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».
Another welcome bonus for Johnson of raising the force limit, and cynics may suspect the driving motivation, is that it provides an opportunity to score easy points against Labour. Under Keir Starmer - following the Corbyn interlude - Labour has returned to its lopsided triangulation between left and right, with the left side of the triangle mostly ignored. Raising the limit on the UK’s nuclear stockpile provides an opportunity to pick on a scab in the Labour party that has never really healed. Hence, in the House of Commons debate, while Starmer prefaced his criticism of the new limit with the claim that «Labour party’s support for nuclear deterrence is non-negotiable» Johnson was predictably having none of it. Instead, he used the occasion to recite the old «weak on defence» trope of New Labour’s old nightmares:
«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.
It is no wonder then that Britain’s 21st century stories remains equally far-fetched. Britain claims its nuclear weapons help «guarantee our security and that of our Allies.» by deterring a «full range of state nuclear threats from any direction». Yet, if there is widespread skepticism about America’s extended deterrence - most famously, Charles De Gaulle questioned whether the US would really risk San Francisco to save Paris - the idea that Britain would risk the obliteration of London to protect Oslo is pure fantasy. As Britain’s leading deterrence expert, Lawrence Freedman, commented, the 2021 review is deliberately ambiguous ‘about precisely when, how and at what scale we [Britain] would contemplate the use of nuclear weapons’ probably «because clarity would not necessarily be reassuring to allies».
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.
Paul Beaumont is a Senior Researcher at NUPI and the author of the book Performing Nuclear Weapons: How Britain Made Trident Make Sense, which will go on sale on 24th May. The first chapter will be open access. Paul holds a Ph.D. in International Relations/International Environmental Studies and Development from the Norwegian University of Life Sciences and has published extensively on British politics and foreign policy.