Upgrading Britain's nuclear deterrent

by Peter Hennessy

08 Aug 2016

Cabinets and the Bomb publishes declassified Cabinet, Cabinet Committee, Chiefs of Staff and Intelligence documents - as well as papers from the Prime Minister's Office - revealing the private briefings and debates which went into the making of British nuclear weapons policy since the early 1940s. The documents, drawn from copies at the National Archives at Kew, range from the first breakthrough made by British scientists in 1940, to the formal December 2006 exchange of letters between Blair and Bush on the upgrade of Trident.
Professor Peter Hennessy FBA guides the reader with a narrative commentary that covers developments right up to the debate in Parliament in spring 2007.

The Blair Government's decision to upgrade the Royal Navy's Trident Missile system will carry on being debated - up to the planned deployment of the new system in the 2020s, and into its operational life of 20-30 years after that. This collection of documents on Britain's nuclear capability - together with a chronology of the key events and episodes - forms a useful background to such debates.

In this web version of his Conclusion, brought up to date for the launch in November 2007 (held at the National Archives), Professor Hennessy considers some of the factors that have weighed upon Britain's nuclear decision makers. This is followed by links to further material.

'From Hiroshima on August 6, 1945,' wrote Daniel Boorstin, the historian of discoverers, 'the world received the shocking discovery that man had opened the dark continent of the atom. Its mysteries would haunt the twentieth century.' Its political, military and strategic consequences have haunted British Cabinets from that day to this. The question of the bomb has run like an irradiated thread through the history of high, bureaucratic, military and scientific politics for 60 years. It has been intimately bound up, too, with the history of official secrecy, parliamentary accountability, and governing styles of prime ministers from Churchill and Attlee to Blair and Brown, and an important sub-component of premiership - the nuclear aspect of the US-UK 'special relationship'.

As Cabinets and the Bomb is a book of explanation rather than advocacy, it is for the reader to judge, rather than for the author to declare, which factors trumped what at various times in the private debates in the Cabinet Room or Chiefs of Staff suite. What is especially interesting to observe is the shift in the blend of reasons for becoming and remaining a nuclear weapons state and for independence, and, later interdependence, in the pursuit of deterrence. Three other countries, in particular, were players in the British Cabinet Room over the sixty years - the United States, Russia and France. They still are, but of late they have been joined by a number of other nuclear or would-be nuclear states.

In human terms, the doctrine of unripe time (this is not the moment to disarm) and the consequent pursuit, as Michael Quinlan has put it, of 'a set of rationales to clothe that gut decision' have undoubtedly been powerful shapers of private discussions in the most secret nuclearised parts of the state. Such factors are not unique to the making of nuclear weapons policy. As Alistair Cooke expressed it in a radio essay on 'Politics and the Human Animal' broadcast amid the embers of the Suez crisis in December 1956, one of the things that struck him most forcibly during his 'daily chore' of watching and listening to 'the chief actors on the political stage' is 'the ease with which a nation does something from instinct and justifies it by reason'.

The shifts in international politics and the condition of the world have been both numerous, and, in many cases, unpredictable since Attlee sat down to write his memorandum for the GEN 75 Cabinet committee in late August 1945. As Denis Healey said of the Wilson Government's decision to carry on with Polaris in 1964, 'given the uncertainties - the Cuban missile crisis was only a year or two behind us, the memory of Hungary was still in our minds, Krushchev had been deposed the day before the British poll, the Chinese had just exploded their bomb the same day - we felt, on the whole, it was wise to continue with it.'

Even for those ministers prepared to contemplate UK nuclear disarmament, the doctrine of unripe time has operated alongside the gut instinct, as one Chief Scientific Adviser to the Ministry of Defence, Sir Hermann Bondi, put it privately, that if you are a nuclear power no other power can risk making you desperate. The cold war, too, was a powerful concentrator of ministerial minds for over forty years.

Even in the autumn of 2007, eighteen years after the Berlin Wall fell, there was, for some, a residual chill from the east when, in the space of two weeks, President Vladimir Putin announced what he called a 'grandiose plan' to create a new generation Russian 'nuclear triad' of missile, submarine and bomber forces, and threatened a modern equivalent of the Cuban missile crisis if the United States constructed anti-missile defence installations in Poland and the Czech Republic.

Only one hugely important factor has held since 1945. No city, in Ronald Clark's phrase, has been 'put to the bomb' since Nagasaki on 9 August 1945. Should that cease to be the case, the terms of the debate about nuclear deterrence will change the world over and not just in Britain.

30 October 2007

Further material

Cabinets and the Bomb, by Peter Hennessy
published for the British Academy by Oxford University Press
A4 format; 368 pages, including 242 pages of document facsimiles
ISBN 978-0-19-726422-5
OUP catalogue entry, and how to order

Extracts (PDF):

Sir Michael Quinlan identifies recurring themes in British nuclear weapons policy

The Nuclear Certificate
Peter Hennessy discusses why British governments sought an independent deterrent

Key events, including some made public for the first time

Upgrade, 2005-07
Peter Hennessy chronicles events up to March 2007 [narrative extract only, excludes documents]

List of documents in the book

The British Academy held a workshop on 'Cabinets and the Bomb' on 27 March 2007, in association with the National Archives and the Mile End Institute of Queen Mary, University of London. The workshop brought together historians working on British nuclear and defence policy, and some of the former officials and ministers involved in the original decision-making processes.

An article on this by Catherine Haddon is published in the British Academy Review (PDF).

Edited transcript of the workshop discussion

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