Before Jeremy Corbyn’s first day in Downing Street as prime minister comes to an end, he will have met with the UK’s chief of the defence staff, the country’s most senior military leader. The scene will be set for an immediate confrontation over the Labour leader’s anti-nuclear weapons stance.
Corbyn will be asked to write four identical letters by hand to send to each of the commanders of the Trident nuclear missile submarine fleet. These so-called “Letters of Last Resort” are secret orders to be opened only if it was clear that the UK government (and its citizens) had been reduced to ashes in a nuclear attack.
No one has ever read the contents of letters written by successive prime ministers since the UK’s first submarine-based nuclear missile weapons system, Polaris, became operational in 1968 under Harold Wilson’s government. When a prime minister leaves office, they are destroyed unopened in readiness for the new version.
During the 2017 election campaign, Corbyn said that “the idea of anyone anywhere in the world using a nuclear weapon is utterly appalling”, which left the Tories foaming at the mouth, presumably because they’d like nothing better than kicking off Armageddon.
In effect, Corbyn rejects the military strategic concept of nuclear deterrence, which is the justification virtually every nuclear state uses for maintaining nuclear arsenals, including the UK. The UK’s first nuclear bomb was developed in total secrecy without parliamentary or cabinet approval by the post-war Atlee government during a period of great austerity and hardship for the majority of people.
Only India and China have explicitly ruled out the “first use” of nuclear weapons in a conflict. In March 2002, the then defence secretary Geoff Hoon stated that the UK was prepared to use nuclear weapons against “rogue states” such as Iraq if they ever used “weapons of mass destruction” against British troops in the field. In April 2017 Defence Secretary Michael Fallon confirmed that the UK would use nuclear weapons in a “pre-emptive initial strike” in “the most extreme circumstances”. Meanwhile, Parliament has voted to spend £40 billion on renewing the Trident system.
Corbyn rejects the use of nuclear weapons in general and the “first strike” policy in particular. This is anathema to the UK’s top military brass, as well as most of the Parliamentary Labour Party, who reject Corbyn’s principled position. Shortly after he was elected leader in November 2015, Corbyn was the subject of an astonishing attack by the then chief of the defence staff, Gen Sir Nicholas Houghton. The general suggested that Corbyn’s unilateralism “would worry me if that thought was translated into power”.
In other words, Corbyn was not fit to be prime minister. This view is undoubtedly shared by other senior officers. The armed forces swear an oath of allegiance to the monarch as their commander-in-chief and not to the elected government. This constitutional sleight of hand could enable them to declare that their job is to defend the realm against the elected government.
This scenario was given more weight by the Sunday Times which in September 2015 carried comments from a “senior serving general” indicating some of his colleagues would use “whatever means possible, fair or foul”, to prevent a Corbyn premiership.
As it’s totally improbable that Corbyn’s “Letter of Last Resort” would instruct Trident commanders to launch nuclear retaliatory strikes, the scene would be set for a showdown with the UK’s military and other elements of the state on day one of his premiership.
Similarly to the armed forces, the loyalty of MI5 and the police is to the crown and not the elected government. MI5 has been known to plot against governments. Elements conspired against the Wilson government in the 1970s and were partly responsible in driving him from office, while elements of the top brass were involved in coup scenarios in the early 1970s when the UK was in the grip of a three-day week, a massive economic crisis and militant strikes for higher pay.
When Houghton attacked him, Corbyn appealed to the Ministry of Defence to see that the “neutrality of the armed forces is upheld”. That will not be enough to counter the threat. The UK state is far from “neutral”. First and foremost it is a defender of the system – aka capitalism – of private property and the wage-labour contract which is the basis of the profit system.
A Corbyn-led government would therefore immediately have to pose the question to the public in a concerted campaign: How can you defend the country and its citizens by using nuclear missiles? The answer is obvious but decades of propaganda (from Labour as well as the Tories) have blurred clear thinking on this issue. A government campaign should expose the futility of using nuclear weapons.
Loyalty to whom? Let the people decide
Democratising the governance of the country is necessary because the military’s position demonstrates an absence of democracy in the UK. Voters should be brought into a conversation about the country’s democracy – its limitations and how to change it. For example, who should the armed forces, MI5 and the police be loyal to – an unelected monarch or a democratic government? These are constitutional questions and the best way to answer these is to set up a citizens’ convention.
This would be charged with the examining present state structures, including Parliament and the executive, where power lies and how the sovereignty of the people could be made effective. A convention would, naturally, have to examine the influence of corporate and financial power as well as the lived experiences of people in their daily lives in relation to basic questions like food, shelter, education and health.
Drawing on expert advice and working independently of the state, a citizens’ convention would be charged with making recommendations about creating a real democracy for the 21st century, moving from representation without power to power with representation. A Corbyn-led government should pledge to implement the convention’s recommendations. In this way, the power of the people will be invoked against military, police and MI5 plots.
A commission on Trident and defence policy
A Corbyn government should set up a commission to investigate alternatives to nuclear weapons for the purposes of defending the UK from attack. The commission could also look into a different, non-aggressive foreign policy. It would also come forward with proposals for other jobs for workers involved in the Trident programme, with no loss of pay as production was turned over to socially-useful objectives.
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