Vital interests

IssueApril 2007
Comment by Milan Rai

What is Trident for? Launching the Trident debate on 14 March, former CND member and current foreign secretary Margaret Beckett said Britain needed nuclear weapons because we cannot be sure that “no power hostile to our vital national interests and in possession of nuclear weapons would emerge” over the next 50 years.

The crucial question then is what these “vital interests” are.

The Rifkind doctrine

In November 1993, the then defence secretary Malcolm Rifkind said that in future Britain might fire a single “substrategic” Trident warhead at an enemy in order to deliver “an unmistakable message of our willingness to defend our vital interests to the utmost”.

New Labour's 1998 Strategic Defence Review (SDR, available online) re-affirmed that nuclear weapons were necessary to defend Britain's “vital interests”.

It gave this definition: “our vital interests are not confined to Europe. Our economy is founded on international trade... We invest more of our income abroad than any other major economy... We depend on foreign countries for supplies of raw materials, above all oil.” (Chapter 2, para 19)

This January, the defence secretary Des Browne said that the government had “deliberately chosen to stop using the term 'sub-strategic Trident'“. He did not say, though, that single-warhead nuclear attacks would now be ruled out, or that they would not be used to defend economic and financial “vital interests” in the global south.


Malcolm Rifkind, who invented the term “sub-strategic”, spoke up during the Trident replacement debate to say, “The likely problem has never been that we would be attacked with nuclear weapons, but that a nuclear-armed aggressor could say to a country disarmed of nuclear weapons, 'Unless you concede to our requirements, we will threaten to use our nuclear weapons against you, in the knowledge that you cannot retaliate.' That is what deterrence is about.”

Nuclear weapons are for coercion, not self-defence. “That is what deterrence is about.”

That is what Trident is about.