A Nuclear Weapons-Free World? Britain, Trident and the Challenges Ahead

Nick Ritchie
Palgrave Macmillan
Year published

Reviewed by Nigel Chamberlain, NATO Watch

The author opens his account by drawing attention to the contradiction between the near universal acceptance, in theory, of the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons and the very practical efforts of successive UK Governments to acquire, update and justify the possession of nuclear weapons under the questionable doctrine of ‘deterrence’.

This study unapologetically proceeds from the view:
that a low-salience nuclear world could be stable in theory but that its time has passed, if it ever existed; 
that a permanently well-managed high-salience nuclear world is an extremely optimistic prognosis; 
that an unstable high-salience nuclear world would present extreme and unacceptable dangers; and therefore,
a nuclear weapons-free world is the necessary and legitimate path to minimising long-term nuclear risk.
He goes on to quote Sir Michael Quinlan, former Permanent Undersecretary of State at the UK Ministry of Defence [often referred to as the ‘High Priest of Deterrence’ by his detractors] who noted in 2009 [shortly before his death on 26 February]: “It cannot be right to acquiesce uncritically, for the rest of human history, in a system that maintains peace between potential adversaries partly by the threat of colossal disaster”. Well, that is exactly what Sir Michael did both as a civil servant and in retirement while one might suggest that his claim that “nuclear weapons have maintained the peace” is more a statement of believe than a statement of fact. But I digress.
Nick Ritchie tells us that the purpose of his study is “to place the UK’s Trident replacement programme in context and explore the complexities of relinquishing nuclear weapons at a point when such a step is politically feasible”. Well possibly, but this reviewer can’t discern any concerted political momentum which will result in this objective, other than by default: for example, if an independent Scottish Government ‘requires’ HMG to ‘remove’ Trident from the River Clyde.
This book is a detailed history of the UK’s nuclear weapons policy and programme from 1990, international efforts to kick-start the disarmament process and with a particular focus on the debate, or lack of it, drivers and costs behind the decision to replace Trident. It reviews the ‘special relationship’ with the US, in practice, how and why Trident is ‘assigned’ to NATO for ‘collective security’, the resistance to replacement and how a positive decision not to modernise Britain’s nuclear capability would sit more comfortably with the nation’s commitments to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT).
The author believes that the UK can lead the way with in the P5 (the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council who just happen to be the five ‘declared’ nuclear weapons states under the NPT) and become what William Walker terms “a disarmament threshold state”. He concludes, rather optimistically I feel, that a political, economic and cultural space has been opened up which could ‘encourage’ the UK Government to rethink ‘minimum deterrence’ by “either relinquishing nuclear weapons after Trident [this one or its replacement?] or pursuing alternative nuclear postures”. 
This reviewer didn’t read the book in its entirety, rather dipping in here and there for context and clarity. I suspect other readers will do the same. It is a dense tome, definitely aimed at the academic market (if rather expensive at nearly £60 a go) but it is certainly a book anyone working in the field would want to display on their library shelf.