While thinking about Question Time I found myself freshly troubled by the reception the Scotland’s forceful SNP First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s anti-Trident stance received on the show last week.
While it would be inaccurate to suggest that the whole crowd was united behind the pro-“nuclear deterrent” representatives on the panel (everyone other guest, basically, from stern Tory Michael Hesiltine to scowling dragon Duncan Bannatyne via Labour’s Caroline Flint), the room clearly responded more favourably to the arguments about the number of job’s involved in renewing trident and the alleged security it provides against Russia than they did to Sturgeon’s arguments in favour of re-prioritising the £100 billion of spending involved in its renewal.
Opposition to Trident is, of course, an established policy of the Scottish Greens. As Patrick Harvie MSP put it in January:
£100 billion could transform our communities… By repurposing our military and adapting to the threats of the 21st century we could free up funds to create many more new jobs, tackle underemployment, poor wages and low-energy transport and housing. Our Green MP candidates will provide a voice for those who agree Scotland is a nation of peace not international aggression.
It’s heartening to remember that this position is more widely shared than it might sometimes feel, and that it is neither new nor uniquely Scottish. I was recently struck by the following passage from lifelong Labour member and staunch anti-war campaigner Tony Benn’s Letters to my Grandchildren:
In a 2009 broadcast my friend Professor Peter Hennessy discussed the chain of command that would operate if a nuclear attack were to be launched against our country. He detailed everything that would happen between an attack being detected and the commander of the Trident submarine pulling the trigger to release his missiles.
In the course of the programme Denis Healy, himself a wartime officer and a very tough former minster of defence, said that under no circumstances would he have agreed to use nuclear weapons – on the grounds that 20 million people might have been killed.
This, in mu mind, opened up the possibility that the peace movement should argue that they do not believe that a British prime minister would actually give his or her consent to the use of nuclear weapons. They should state that they had such confidence in the good sense of any such prime minister that we really need not worry about nuclear war.
In response to an argument of this kind it would be the prime minister himself who would have to ‘reassure’ the public that he would authorise the use of nuclear weapons, and I think many people would not believe him if he said that.
I like the idea of pushing those who argue for the renewal of Trident to say that they would either authorise or support the authorisation of the death of 20 million people in a single stroke. Some mainstream politicians like to act tough (on “benefits scroungers”, “immigrants”, and other people in a weakened social position) but the line between “tough” and “dangerous” is thinner than they might think.