How can the UK help?

IssueJune - July 2024
News by Ian Sinclair

On 21 May, the Nuclear Education Trust, an independent charity that aims to inform and educate decision-makers, the public and media about nuclear weapons, launched its new report The Future for UK Defence, Diplomacy and Disarmament in the House of Lords.

Written by Dr Tim Street and based on a survey of UK parliamentarians, think tank experts, academics and representatives of civil society organisations (including PN editor Milan Rai), the report considers ‘how the UK can best harness its defence and foreign policy to reduce international tensions and help get the world back on a path to nuclear disarmament.’

According to the report’s conclusion ‘For many we spoke to, the potential for progress on arms control and disarmament is… low given the tensions and distrust between the major powers [over the war in Ukraine]’.

Speakers at the event included former foreign secretary Margaret Beckett MP and Julian Lewis MP, former chair of the Commons defence select committee, along with spokespeople from the Scottish National party (SNP), Liberal Democrats, Green party of England and Wales and Plaid Cymru..

During the wide-ranging discussion, Beckett expressed support for the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, while calling the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) ‘a waste of time’.

In contrast, Street argued ‘we need to stress test… the TPNW’, noting the the TPNW process highlighted the colonial origins of the West’s nuclear weapons (taking uranium from the Congo and undertaking nuclear tests in the Global South) and the West’s continuing nuclear threats against non-nuclear weapon states.

The report notes Rai’s contribution ‘emphasised that the meaning of nuclear deterrence for the UK is not properly understood’, with the public generally believing it to mean deterring a first strike on the British Isles.

In contrast, ‘top decision-makers understand it to have a wider, extended application, protecting the UK’s overseas interests and ability to project power globally’.

The report continues: ‘The difference in understanding between the public’s general view of the role of the UK’s nuclear weapons – and what deterrence means – and how elites use these weapons on the world stage, is a key barrier to building political support for progressive, disarmament-oriented policies.’

Arguing his party’s anti-Trident nuclear weapons policy reflected Scottish public opinion, former SNP defence spokesperson Dave Doogan MP said public opinion in England ‘has not been informed by high quality parliamentary debate about whether or not we should be a nuclear-armed country – because I’m not convinced that debate has happened meaningfully in the last few decades’.

Lewis responded, saying there was a ‘high-level discussion’ in the House of Commons main chamber on the UK’s nuclear weapons on 17 January 2013, organised by a group of parliamentarians including Paul Flynn MP, Jeremy Corbyn MP and Lewis himself.

In addition, Lewis, who worked for the Conservative Party-adjacent anti-Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament pressure group Coalition for Peace Through Security (CPS) in the 1980s, said opinion polls commissioned by the organisation consistently showed the majority of Britons supported the UK retaining its nuclear weapons if Russia had nuclear weapons.

He argued the outcome of the 1983 and 1987 general elections, in which nuclear weapons were a key issue, vindicated the CPS’s polling.

The report provides 50 policy recommendations, divided into incremental, innovative and transformative proposals.

In the report’s conclusion, Street lists a number of domestic political obstacles to the UK prioritising nuclear arms control, non-proliferation and disarmament, including ‘the political and economic influence of the US and NATO on UK policymakers’, ‘secrecy, and a lack of democratic accountability and oversight’ and ‘a mainstream media that does not accurately report the UK’s international behaviour.’