Today the world stays on ultra-high alert, as the hands on the Doomsday Clock continue at 90 seconds to midnight – the closest they have ever been. In setting the hands, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists said the decision was based on concern over the war in Ukraine, extensive modernisation and expansion of nuclear arsenals, and the crisis in nuclear arms control – which has all but shut down. The ongoing conflict in Gaza was also cited as a crisis that could lead to a nuclear exchange between regional powers.
While some progress had been made on tackling climate change, states were not moving fast or deep enough to tackle the problem. Disruptive technologies like AI also posed an area of concern which they said “could magnify disinformation and corrupt the global information environment.”
So it’s a dangerous time for the world, by any measure. If only one could say that the British government is doing its bit to pull back the hands. Alas, no. Last week, Grant Shapps stepped up Britain’s commitment to war-fighting and destruction, and indicated his desire for Britain to be in the driving seat in stoking further conflicts. We are in a pre-war world, he stated, not a post-war world. In his first major speech as Defence Secretary, Shapps revealed his world view: akin to President Bush’s ‘Axis of Evil’, but on steroids. In 2002, Bush identified the ‘enemies’ as Iraq, Iran and North Korea. A year later, Iraq was effectively destroyed. Shapps has more ambitious targets on his list: to Iran and North Korea, he has added Russia and China. In five years, he says, we could be looking at multiple theatres of war, including all of these.
Of course Shapps has no thought for how potential war can be prevented, how international relations can be reset to stop the drive to war. He thinks only of how to contribute to it, to prepare for it, and in doing so, to make it far more likely. His priority is to throw weapons and money at everything, from Ukraine, to Gaza, to the Red Sea, to the Indo-Pacific. He brags of pushing ‘defence’ spending to 2.5% of GDP, of exceeding £50 billion a year; and Britain’s power to influence world events is couched solely in terms of military might and destructive power – with the added bonus that this can be great for British industry.
Shapps puts nuclear weapons front and centre of Britain’s supposed military and industrial resurgence. The foundation for gaining a strategic advantage over our enemies is, apparently, our nuclear ‘enterprise’. This description, increasingly used by government, seems designed to make the nuclear arsenal sound less like weapons of mass destruction and more like an exciting business proposition.
Yet the reality is that the world is closer to nuclear war than it has ever been – and Britain plays a significant role in generating the global dynamic and the policies which are leading us in that direction.
In the decades since the Cold War ended, we have become used to the steady decline in global nuclear arsenals as the US and Russia have agreed successive treaties reducing their stockpiles. Britain too, had overseen reductions in its own arsenal, including a substantial reduction announced by the Conservative-led coalition just over a decade ago. That global trend has now reversed. Last summer the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute announced that the number of nuclear weapons available for use had actually grown. And all nine nuclear-armed states continue to modernise their nuclear arsenals and deploy new nuclear-capable systems.
Britain is playing its own role in this reversal. In 2021 the government announced it would increase Britain’s warhead limit by over 40 percent, up to 260 warheads. Alongside this there has been a major increase on nuclear weapons spending. Last summer, the Defence Secretary added a further £6 billion to the additional £3 billion already announced in the spring budget, on top of the regular budget. The big drain of course is the ongoing replacement of the submarine-based Trident nuclear weapons system. Several years ago, its estimated lifetime cost was £205 billion. It will now be well in excess of that.
Of course the increased dangers are not limited to the expansion and development of hardware. Nuclear weapons are also political weapons and their use – or threat of use – is driven by political posturing, jockeying for position on the world stage, and straightforward impunity and intimidation. We have seen much of this during the Ukraine war, but we have also seen how discussions about potential use – so-called ‘battlefield’ use in particular – has been used to introduce the idea that nuclear weapons could be used, without catastrophic consequences. When heavily armed nuclear states confront each other, directly or by proxy, there is no such thing as a ‘small’ nuclear attack.
For almost eighty years, since the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there has been a knife-edge balancing act to prevent further nuclear use. Generations of activists have fought to ensure that they remain unusable. Politicians have from time to time stepped back from the brink to avoid nuclear Armageddon. Underpinning those decades was an understanding that their use would be something too terrible to contemplate – that it must never happen again. We move away from that understanding at our peril, and politicians like Grant Shapps, who would take us down that road, must be stopped.