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Defence chief tells J&P audience of moral case for nuclear armament
01 April 2014 18:13 by Elena Curti

The former Conservative Defence Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind made an ethical case for Britain keeping its nuclear weapons when he addressed an audience of Catholic justice and peace supporters on Monday.

Speaking in a debate with veteran anti-nuclear campaigner Bruce Kent, Sir Malcolm said scrapping Trident, Britain’s nuclear deterrent, would be a “very serious mistake” and create instability around the world.

Bruce Kent, the vice president of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), commended Sir Malcolm over his support for of Global Zero, an organisation that works for the elimination of nuclear weapons. However, he said Britain should work for the same end unilaterally by scrapping the renewal of Trident, Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent.

Mr Kent estimated that replacing Trident would cost £100 billion, threatened mass murder and was therefore totally immoral. He argued that the money would be better spent on measures to counter climate change, which he said was already leading to food shortages in parts of the developing world and threatened mass migration.

The debate was organised by the Religious of the Assumption, Pax Christi and CND and took place in central London. The former Defence and Foreign Secretary was invited to take part in his capacity as the MP for Kensington and Chelsea.

Sir Malcolm explained that in the years after the end of the Cold War, the number of nuclear warheads in the world had been reduced from 63,000 to 20,000. The UK had about 200 warheads while the United States and Russia held most of the rest.

The pace of disarmament had stalled in recent years, said Sir Malcolm, in part because Russia perceived that the United States conventional weapons’ capacity was stronger than its own due to technological advances. Russia was, he believed, therefore, more heavily reliant on its nuclear weapons. President Obama, he said, was keen to resume nuclear disarmament negotiations but was being blocked by Congress.

Sir Malcolm said Russia’s invasion of the Crimea in Ukraine – the first time since the early 1990s that one country had invaded another’s territory – was evidence that Russia is not a reliable, democratic, stable society that respected norms. He said Russia had invaded Crimea because it calculated that Ukraine lacked the means to defend itself militarily and that the West would merely “wring its hands”. If Russia became the only nuclear-armed power, he said, he could envisage a Russian head of government making similar calculations about invading other former Soviet satellite states.

In support of his argument, Sir Malcolm quoted the late Sir Michael Quinlan, former Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Defence and chairman of The Tablet Trust, who argued that the possession of nuclear weapons was compatible with Just War doctrine.

“The ethics are not all on one side. It is an argument about how best to preserve global peace,” said Sir Malcolm.

Bruce Kent said that the Catholic Church is wholly opposed to the Trident nuclear weapons system, and cited a statement from the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales in November 2006 which called for Britain’s nuclear weapons to be decommissioned. He said nuclear weapons and the nuclear energy were inextricably tied together, with products of nuclear energy originally being used to power warheads.

He referred to accidents in the nuclear power industry and near-misses in military exercises with nuclear weapons which highlighted the scale of the dangers they posed.

Referring to the suit hire company, Mr Kent described Trident as a “Moss Bros” deterrent because, he claimed, it was on loan from the United States. This was denied by Sir Malcolm, who insisted it was completely independent.

Asked about the protocol for using Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent, Sir Malcolm said the decision to launch a Trident missile rests with the Prime Minister, but that a second person is also nominated in case the Prime Minister is killed or incapacitated. Also, as a precaution, the captain of a nuclear submarine cannot launch a missile alone, but is dependent on the co-operation of a fellow officer.

The debate was the first stop in Bruce Kent’s Scrap Trident Tour of England. For further details click here.