April 8, 2016 | By

The British Debate on Nuclear Disarmament


Protesters take part in a protest against the Trident nuclear missile system in London, February 27, 2016. REUTERS/Paul Hackett

Last month the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), a United Kingdom group founded in 1958, held its largest rally since 1983. The climate in the UK today is similar to that in 1983 in two ways. The first is Jeremy Corbyn—the Labour Party’s leader—is advocating disarmament. In 1983, the Labour Party made unilateral disarmament an official policy goal. The second similarity is that today (and in 1983) the UK is coming out of a recession which has meant enduring austerity measures since 2010. Budget cuts likely make it undesirable to spend large sums of money on maintaining weapons characterized by their lack of use. Despite, however, support for disarmament from Corbyn and the CND, disarmament remains unpopular amongst the general public.

The UK’s history of flirting with disarmament is a prime example of the disarmament community’s inability to move the public. Typically domestic debates around what countries should do with their aging nuclear arsenals has been discussed mainly in foreign policy elite circles. International debates on nuclear disarmament similarly take place in the diplomatic and academic communities. With few exceptions, such as the CND rally, neither the domestic or international debate has permeated the general public.

Just one month prior to the CND rally Ipsos Mori conducted a poll in the UK in which 58 percent of respondents opposed getting rid of Britain’s nuclear weapons. Additionally, 70 percent of respondents opposed unilateral disarmament. While the turnout to a pro-disarmament rally is encouraging for anti-nuclear activists, it just isn’t enough.

Support for disarmament in the UK seems to exist primarily amongst a handful of prominent political figures and academics. It is also clearly influenced by a broader movement, focused on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons, made up primarily of statesmen and academics. Corbyn focused much of his address at the CND protest on what he learned from a panel of experts at the Vienna Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons in 2014 regarding the global effects of the use of nuclear weapons, namely “the immediate environmental effect, the immediate destruction, the immediate problems of the fall out; the slightly later ecological disaster that follows, the economic impact that follows, the food supply impact that follows from one nuclear explosion in one place in one spot on our globe.”

The humanitarian consequences movement, while significant in how it has changed rhetoric on disarmament at an elite level, has failed to attract public interest. This is unfortunate because disarmament is not as simple as stopping a policy, it has security and economic implications that politicians could leverage to spark public outcry against it. Similarly, public opinion could be utilized to combat these concerns, if a majority of the public were to support disarmament regardless of these or other concerns.

The first such concern is security: some may argue that to disarm unilaterally would jeopardize national security. This is rooted in the belief that nuclear weapons prevent conventional attacks from states who fear nuclear retaliation. Another is financial: though disarmament would certainly save money in the long term, as nuclear arsenals require the replacing and updating of parts over time to ensure their effectiveness, disarmament would cost a significant amount of money in the short term. It would also require the utmost care to ensure that fissile materials are removed safely from nuclear warheads.

And yet relative to some of the other nuclear weapons possessors, the UK would probably have a much easier time disarming unilaterally. The UK’s perceived security risks as a result of unilateral disarmament are less severe than other nuclear weapons possessors and it might even find a place under the US nuclear umbrella with states such as Japan and South Korea. Additionally, with a relatively small estimated stockpile of less than 250 nuclear warheads, the financial costs of disarmament are relatively low.

Perhaps disarmament advocates in the UK should broaden arguments against Trident beyond economic incentives or seek out advocates from other political parties. As it is, disarmament has enough supporters to make their rallies news, but not enough to pose strong public opposition to modernizing Trident.

About

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs highlights critical shifts in American public thinking on US foreign policy through public opinion surveys and research conducted under the Lester Crown Center on US Foreign Policy. 

The annual Chicago Council Survey, first conducted in 1974, is a valuable resource for policymakers, academics, media, and the general public. The Council also surveys American leaders in government, business, academia, think tanks, and religious organizations biennially to compare trends in their thinking with overall trends. And collaborating with partner organizations, the survey team periodically conducts parallel surveys of public opinion in other regions of the world to compare with US public opinion. 

The Running Numbers blog features regular commentary and analysis from the Council’s public opinion and US foreign policy research team, including a series of flash polls of a select group of foreign policy experts to assess their opinions on critical foreign policy topics driving the news.

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