Jeremy Corbyn is a non-politician doing a politician’s job.
Why didn’t anyone spot this a year ago? Well, they did, including many gleeful Conservatives. But a lot of Labour supporters were incredulous with joy. At last, a leader who didn’t tell porkies!
The result is that we are in a general election campaign, and the only person in the country who is placed to lead the fight against Theresa May and her Bruiser’s Brexit is cornered into answering questions about Trident on the Andrew Marr Show, and is promptly contradicted by his own, panicked, shadow cabinet. He had not meant it when he said that defence policy, which includes Trident, would be “reviewed.” The Labour Party was wholly committed to weapons of mass destruction that would be fired (probably) from beneath the waves as an apocalyptic act of vengeance against a foreign power that had attacked our island. Quite right, too, said Michael Fallon, adding that he personally was ready to launch a first strike if sufficiently cross. By this time Tim Farron had weighed in, saying that the Lib Dems also were true blue on Trident.
Having neatly demonstrated to the nation Mr Corbyn’s unfitness to be Prime Minister, Andrew Marr passed on to air strikes.
It is always like this. Nuclear weapons are amazingly popular considering how nasty they are, but then no-one ever does consider how nasty they are. In any case, it is classified information. They are an emblem of patriotism, notwithstanding the increased incidence of cancers around their places of origin. They exist without fully existing. They are there to be manipulated like pieces on a chessboard, for one gain or another, probably political. We might be well on the way to getting rid of them by now but for Margaret Thatcher, who realised, after extraordinary noises had come out of a summit in Reykjavik, that, if they were to be abolished, she might lose the next election to Neil Kinnock. She flew to Camp David, and Ronald Reagan proceeded no further with some very promising talks with Gorbachev.
Thus Britain’s four Trident submarines, one of which recently fired a missile in the wrong direction, have, just by existing, probably influenced the outcome of this general election.
The weapons themselves are never supposed to do anything. They’re a deterrent, aren’t they? We want them to go on slumbering in their secret nests, creating – absurdly – a sense of security.
But they don’t do nothing. They never do nothing. They may or may not be “active as a deterrent.” Military thinking has largely moved on from deterrence to first strike, partly because nukes will not deter terrorists but, on the contrary, attract them. However, they are certainly active in encouraging proliferation of their own kind. The reason for this is that they are believed to be a deterrent. If they’re good for us, they’re good for everyone. This is irrefutable.
These are bellicose times. (Start a war with Spain? What a splendid idea!) It’s a good time to play the “Are you a nuclear realist or a nuclear wimp?” game, particularly when your opponent is known to be a nuclear wimp.
However, Jeremy Corbyn is not a nuclear wimp. He is one of the few politicians who have the courage to name the beast. He believes nuclear weapons are a useless evil. He thinks they endanger all life on the planet whether they are detonated or not, and are an obscene waste of money. He is right.
CND has been fighting this battle for decades, and a Brexit blog is not the place to reprise it. However, I want to return to that Trident missile which lost its satnav last summer. Theresa May knew about it, and kept quiet about it, during the Commons debate on whether Trident should be renewed. Whether it would have made a difference is irrelevant. If MPs do not have all the appropriate information at their disposal in such a debate, the debate is a sham – and so, incidentally, is Theresa May’s pose as The Vicar’s Daughter. However, what is really alarming about that bit of hi-tech errancy is that it keeps happening.
The military, which is romantic about itself, calls accidents involving nuclear weapons “broken arrows.” There have been 32 since 1950. Eric Schlosser’s Command and Control, published three years ago, describes some. Schlosser starts with the Titan II missile on which a young mechanic dropped a wrench in 1980. It ruptured the missile’s fuel tank, which began to leak. Nine hours later the missile exploded, destroying the launch site and killing an airman. There was no nuclear explosion, although there could have been; in that case, there would now be no Arkansas.
More than once during the Cold War, a commander’s finger was poised over the launch button when he was dissuaded by a subordinate who did not believe the information he was getting from the warning system. Chatham House has a report on incidents that nearly led to nuclear war: 13 since 1962.1 Once, an exercise tape had been left in the system. Once, it was a faulty computer chip. Once, it was a Norwegian research rocket that had a radar signature similar to a Trident’s…
It’s not just the technology. President Mitterand left the launch codes in his suit pocket. So did Jimmy Carter. Jimmy Carter’s suit was taken to the dry cleaners.
And it’s not just the weapons. This week is the 31st anniversary of Chernobyl. I went to watch a documentary 2 filmed at a 2001 conference in Kiev, facilitated by the WHO, about the effects of nuclear radiation. Scientists and physicians from many nations presented their findings. Also present were representatives of the IAEA, the International Atomic Energy Agency, whose remit is to promote the “peaceful use of nuclear power.” The film focused on new evidence that ingestion of radioactive caesium 137 after the explosion caused damage to the vital organs of children, which at a certain level became irreversible. The IAEA denied the validity of the evidence.
Then we saw the children. Serious, polite, fluently pronouncing the names of medical conditions they should never have heard of; they could pronounce them because they had them. Systemic collagenosis. Infarctions. Cardiac crisis… An old lady, tending her goats, spoke about the changes in the village. Once, the street had been noisy with children. “This was before radiation.” Now there were eight children in the street “and they are so… sleepy,” she said.
The conference’s final resolution, which would form the basis of government guidance on radiological protection for the future, did not accept the new evidence about caesium 137. It was never going to. The IAEA has muscle the WHO lacks, although they are both agencies of the UN and theoretically equal, because it reports direct to the Security Council. The World Health Organisation is prevented from researching into the medical effects of radiation without the IAEA’s approval. After the Chernobyl disaster, it was banned from the contaminated area for five years. The IAEA estimates the number of deaths resulting from the explosion at around 35 and the number of seriously contaminated at a few hundred. Kofi Annan estimates the number of victims at nine million.
The nuclear power industry cannot be separated from the production of nuclear weapons. Its reactors produce the fissile material that goes into the warheads. However, nuclear reactors would still pose a danger to human health – and everyone else’s – if their products did not go into bombs, and even if the reactors never exploded and were never overtaken by earthquakes, tidal waves or subsidence, because those products are in themselves highly dangerous. And some of them will survive for a length of time we can barely imagine.
Worried about this and, unlike our own government, resolved to do something about it, the Finns are constructing a vast bunker 500 metres underground in which to store their radioactive waste for a hundred thousand years. There’s a documentary about this, too: a haunting, eerie film called Into Eternity.
This least appealing aspect of nuclear power explains why Jeremy Corbyn isn’t a fan of Sellafield, and why he lost the Copeland by-election.
What can one say about all this? In political terms, Corbyn’s stance is a disaster. In moral terms, it is the only conceivable stance. What do we want?
I know what I don’t want. It is presumably apparent from this blog.
The Chatham House Report observes that, often, nuclear war has been averted by a refusal to follow orders.
I do find that hopeful.
1 Too Close for Comfort: Cases of Near Nuclear Use and Policies for Today. Chatham House Report, April 2014.
2 Nuclear Controversies and the WHO Cover-Up.