Today
Sun 1 August 2021

The Prime Minister’s strongman antics make a mockery of his ‘Global Britain’ mantra, says Ben Donaldson

Boris Johnson has abandoned the UK’s commitment to reduce warhead stockpiles to 180 by the mid-2020s. In doing so, has dealt a huge blow to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) – considered to be the cornerstone of global nuclear security architecture. 

The move, announced in the UK’s Integrated Review, raises the stockpile cap by more than 40% to 260 warheads, making it the first Western nuclear-armed state to increase its stockpile since the end of the Cold War.

The UK has effectively relinquished any credible claim that it is committed to disarmament and non-proliferation. As well as widening the circumstances under which the UK may use nuclear weapons to include the scenario of responding to as yet undefined “emerging technologies”, the review also rolls-back a policy of transparency around the UK’s deployed nuclear capabilities including the numbers of missiles and warheads deployed on its submarines.

This disarmament U-turn is an apparent response to the deteriorating security environment – including nuclear-armed states diversifying their arsenals to incorporate shorter-range, lower-yield weapons which may have a lower threshold for use. But this justification has been met by confusion and alarm by experts working on defence issues.

“How is raising our strategic warhead cap relevant to a potential rise in the short- and medium-range nuclear threat?” former assistant chief of defence staff Major General Jonathan Shaw has questioned. He describes the move as “inappropriate and disproportionate”. 

The motivation, at least in part, seems to lie not in the orthodoxy of nuclear weapons doctrines or security analysis, but in the petty domestic politicking of the Prime Minister, who appears to be attempting to set a trap for his Labour rival Keir Starmer.

Labour has been at pains to distance itself from the long-term opposition to Trident of its previous leader Jeremy Corbyn, and now describes its commitment to nuclear weapons as “non-negotiable”.

Indeed, Johnson and Starmer simply seem to be attempting to out-gun one another over nuclear weapons – with neither prepared to challenge the flawed preconceptions underpinning the debate.

At last week’s Prime Minister’s Questions, the extent of Starmer’s scrutiny – after pointing out his own support for nuclear weapons – was to ask for clarification on the purpose of the move and pointing out the inconsistencies when compared to previous governments. Inevitably, this was countered with Johnson calling the Labour Leader “weak on defence”.

This hyper-masculine performance for a domestic audience not only prevents scrutiny of the Government, it also has knock-on effects for the international system which the post-Brexit ‘Global Britain’ purports to support.

In a highly unusual move, the Secretary-General of the United Nations commented on the UK’s compliance with its obligations in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) – stating that its decision to increase its nuclear weapons arsenal is “contrary to its obligations under Article VI of the NPT” and “could have a damaging impact on global stability”.

The NPT, which is set to meet later this year for a crucial five-yearly review conference, requires the UK and 190 states to work in good faith to prevent proliferation and accomplish the elimination of all nuclear weapons. It is credited with keeping the number of nuclear-armed states in single figures and is considered by the UK as vital to the country’s national interest.

In recent years, however, tensions that have arisen, in part over the perceived slow pace of disarmament, have rendered the forum unable to agree on a plan of action. The UK’s Integrated Review will significantly exacerbate these tensions.

Boris Johnson’s nuclear rearmament is also unlikely to help Britain to forge new partnerships outside of the EU. Allies in the NPT will struggle to defend the UK’s conduct and it will place further strain on diplomatic relations with more than 130 states that reject the utility of nuclear weapons and support the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons – a new treaty which makes nuclear weapons illegal under international law and which entered into force in January this year. 

Is the fall-out worth it? Will Johnson’s desire to project a ‘strongman’ image deliver security benefits for a British population reeling from a devastating global pandemic?

Behind the rhetoric, each additional warhead is another 100 kiloton weapon trundling the length of the country by road between nuclear maintenance facilities in Berkshire and the Scottish naval base and storage facilities at Faslane and Coulport. The UK may be overstating the “deep reserve” of trust the public has for the next generation of weapons, which will cost at least £179 billion – especially given that the devolved Scottish Government is unambiguously opposed to Trident and city authorities across the UK are taking a similar stance.

It is often said that any government’s first duty is the security of its citizens. To be taken seriously in this task, Johnson’s Government must stop treating the international system as a play-thing to further domestic political ambitions and adopt a more consistent, internationally-aware approach.

Ben Donaldson is head of campaigns at the United Nations Association of the UK

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