A portrait photo of Kate Hudson
Dr Kate Hudson
CND General Secretary
Kate Hudson has been General Secretary of CND since September 2010. Prior to this she served as the organisation's Chair from 2003. She is a leading anti-nuclear and anti-war campaigner nationally and internationally.

Where is the debate about nuclear weapons – and what security really means – in this election campaign? CND Chair Tom Unterrainer reflects on the bizarre contradictions and lack of transparency at the heart of Britain’s nuclear myths.

“Our commitment to the UK’s nuclear deterrent is absolute”, announces Labour’s 2024 manifesto. “We will always be steadfast in our support for our Trident nuclear deterrent”, claim the Tories. The Liberal Democrats pledge to maintain “the UK’s nuclear deterrent”.

Meanwhile, the Green Party notes that most “of the world’s countries do not possess weapons of mass destruction and are safer as a result”. They pledge to dismantle “our nuclear weapons”, cancel “the Trident programme” and remove “all foreign nuclear weapons from UK soil.” Similarly, Plaid Cymru “opposes the Trident nuclear weapons system and its renewal”.

For their part, the Scottish National Party pledges to “[s]crap Trident and invest the billions spent funding these immoral weapons” elsewhere. All three of these parties pledge to sign the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

For anyone truly confused or undecided about nuclear weapons, the differences between pro-nuclear and anti-nuclear positions in this election could be puzzling. Why is there such a clear difference of opinion? How to account for it?

The closest the British media get to probing the nuclear question is asking candidates if they would “press the button”, a truly despicable simplification. More despicable, perhaps, is the willingness of many politicians to answer in the affirmative. Why do journalists ask such questions and why do a majority of politicians answer yes?

What about NATO, the nuclear-armed military alliance? Of the six parties mentioned above, five pledge continued support for NATO with Plaid Cymru not making any mention of it. We understand that Plaid would not support an independent Wales joining the nuclear-armed alliance. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has no reservations about trumpeting the centrality of nuclear weapons to alliance strategy. Why is this not reflected in any of the manifestos?

One of the most consequential nuclear developments in the UK at the current time is US plans to station a new generation of nuclear bombs at the Lakenheath airbase in Suffolk. The US removed nuclear bombs from the base in the late 2000s after sustained protests and campaigning by CND and the peace movement. US bombs look set to return and there has been no public discussion, consultation or debate on this prospect. This lack of transparency is reflected in the party manifestos, with only the Green Party making a nod in this direction with their pledge to remove “all foreign nuclear weapons from UK soil.” Why is this not a major issue?

A possible answer to the questions posed here is that at the best of times, the UK’s political class does not engage in open and honest debate on nuclear and related issues. For instance, the true cost of maintaining and renewing nuclear weapons systems is an open secret. It runs to many billions of pounds over the lifetime of such projects. In 2023 alone, the UK government spent £12,000 a minute, a total of £6.37 billion (a 17.1% increase from the previous year). For a politician to openly admit the true scale of spending on nuclear weapons when they claim there is ‘not enough money’ to abolish the child benefit cap, would be problematic to say the least.

If such embarrassing facts about spending were not problematic enough, the maintenance and replacement of UK nuclear weapons systems has been plagued by delays and faults. Similarly the ‘Atomic Weapons Establishment’ – responsible for the design and maintenance of nuclear warheads – has been beset by issues including a 2018 warning to “improve safety or shut down”. It is hardly surprising that a country that is seemingly incapable of building a new train line should encounter such problems, but it is terrifying.

Also terrifying are the answers to journalists’ “press the button” question because the question that is actually being asked is this: “would you be prepared to unleash a genocidal nuclear war that at best will murder millions of innocents and at worst exterminate all life on planet earth?” “Yes … yes I would” respond our ‘leaders’ without hesitation. But the journalists do not ask directly about mass murder and genocide and the politicians do not openly admit a willingness to potentially end all life on Earth because to do so would be to expose current conceptions of ‘security’ as a nightmare.

Which brings us to NATO. Labour’s manifesto reports “[o]ur commitment to NATO as the cornerstone of European and global security is unshakeable”. Similar sentiments are found in the Conservative and Liberal Democrat manifestos. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, in describing the alliance’s ‘nuclear mission’, recently described the United Kingdom as “special” because it “has its own nuclear weapons”. A ‘security’ alliance that bases itself on the ability to unleash mass-death and genocide must be one of the most perversely illogical concoctions of the human mind. Yet all-too-many politicians have convinced themselves and try to convince the rest of us that this makes some kind of sense. When you also consider that it is claimed that NATO has been defending democracy for 75 years alongside the fact that fascist Portugal was an original member, then the miss-match between claim and reality becomes even clearer.

But of course when Labour, Tory and Liberals alike refer to “our” nuclear weapons or an “independent” nuclear capability, they are not exactly telling the truth. Just as NATO is dominated by US concerns and influence, the UK’s nuclear weapons capability is dependent on – and therefore dominated by – by US technical and political ‘generosity’. The late John Ainslie demonstrated this dependence at length and in huge detail. His work is worth revisiting, especially with the prospect of a second Trump Presidency looming.

Secrecy, ‘lack of transparency’ and outright lies have accompanied nuclear weapons from their development to their proliferation across the world. They seem to have a special status in British politics as ‘something that must be named but not exposed’. This General Election – like others before it – is unlikely to offer many opportunities for exposure. Which is why the ongoing work of nuclear disarmers, their organisations and campaigns are of such vital importance. Most politicians will not offer the terrifying truth about our nuclear age. That’s a job for us.