Wednesday 28 January 2015

Morality in politics

In the first two elections that I can remember, those in 1964 and 1966, I was too young to vote.  But I can remember a certain amount of excitement at the time, and also some of the promises being made by the Labour Party under Wilson.  One of the headline policies was that Polaris, the UK’s nuclear-armed submarines, would be scrapped.  It didn’t happen, of course; and far from divesting the UK of its nuclear arsenal, the Labour Party have either taken, or been complicit in, every subsequent decision to modernise and replace the nuclear arsenal.  I ended up disillusioned with the promises of the Labour Party before I was even old enough to vote.
Although there has long been a strand in the Labour Party which has opposed the possession of nuclear weapons, and the issue looked like it might come to the fore again when Michael Foot was leader, time and time again the Labour Party has proved that it is not a serious party of disarmament, and with the other two main UK parties committed to retention as well, it has never really been an election issue for the last half a century.
The anticipated closeness of the coming election has created a situation where the Green Party, SNP, and Plaid can again put the matter on the agenda.  There’s a certain amount of posturing in this, of course (there is no conceivable outcome to the election which doesn’t result in a House of Commons containing an overwhelming majority in favour of the continued possession of nuclear weapons), and talk of ‘forcing’ the government into abandoning them is fanciful at best.  But at least it’s an issue which can be discussed in a way which hasn’t really happened for 50 years – and almost everyone in the UK looks like having an opportunity, at least, to vote for an anti-Trident candidate.
It’s hard to discuss the issue without getting into moral arguments.  For the three main UK parties, that’s something to be avoided at all costs.  For them, the ‘fact’ of deterrence is a given, the possession of these weapons is an inalienable right, and the only question is about the most cost-effective way of renewing them.  But for most opponents, there is always and inevitably a moral dimension to the debate.  

For the ‘deterrent’ to be in any way credible, those in charge of it have to be able to say convincingly that there are circumstances in which they would be prepared to give the order to obliterate whole cities. I have no doubt that Cameron, Clegg, and Miliband are all, in effect, saying that there are circumstances in which they would indeed be prepared to give that order, even if it meant killing millions of civilians whose only crime was to live in a particular place.
The comparison between the jobs provided by Trident and those provided at Auschwitz which was used by Dafydd Wigley earlier today was unfortunate, for a number of reasons.  The comparison is far from being a direct one and the timing on the day after the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz was awful.  It has also helped enable the cheer leaders for Trident to divert attention away from the morality of the possession of nuclear weapons and on to ground on which they feel more secure – criticising the poor choice of words of a political opponent.
Of course there's a huge difference between the actual deaths of the 6 million Jews slaughtered under Hitler’s orders, and the potential slaughter which would result from the use of nuclear weapons.  One is very real, it actually happened; the other is merely a potential scenario for the future.  But in the knowledge of the horrors of the past, the fact that any politician could seriously consider that it is ever right to threaten to unleash death and destruction on the scale of a nuclear war certainly makes me wonder whether we have really learned anything from the past.
Trident is more than just a technical matter; for many of us it is, at heart, a moral issue.  And I hope that those opposing it will continue to make that point, even if they need to choose their words with a little more care.

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