A ‘deluded imperial fantasy’

Britain announces 40% increase in its nuclear arsenal

By Linda Pentz Gunter

It’s called Global Britain, a puffed up and pompous title from a government led by someone who comports himself like a puffed up and pompous overgrown schoolboy. America First may be fading with the exit of Donald Trump from the US presidency, but his British alter ego, UK prime minister, Boris Johnson, has quickly donned Emperor Trump’s discarded new clothes.

Global Britain is all post-Brexit bluster and illusion, a desperate lunge for global trading partners now that doors in Europe are closing, a result of Britain’s self-imposed isolation. 

But on March 16 things took a more ominous turn. That is when Britain’s Conservative government announced a 40% increase in the country’s nuclear arsenal. 

Specifically, they are proposing to raise the limit on the number of Britain’s total nuclear warheads carried by its four American Trident submarines from 180 to 260. And it marks a stark reversal of what had been a 30-year pathway toward (very) gradual nuclear disarmament.

77% of the British public support a ban on nuclear weapons. (Photo: Garry Knight/Creative Commons)

Yes, neither “40%” nor “increase” are misprints. Even as the Russian and US presidents are agreeing on New START, which will mean a continued — if too slow — reduction in their respective nuclear arsenals, Johnson is escalating Britain’s nuclear war-fighting inventory by adding another 80 warheads.

As was not unreasonably asked, how many more times can you kill everyone on Earth? Even the rightwing British tabloid, The Sun, ran a headline asking: “Aren’t 180 city-destroying bombs enough?”

All of this is contained in a vast new document called Global Britain in a Competitive Age: the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy.

Since Britain, plunged into prolonged austerity by the previous Tory governments of David Cameron and Theresa May even before Johnson took the helm, does not need any nuclear weapons let alone 40% more, the move can only be described as some sort of desperate effort at empire building, an attempt to resuscitate alleged past glories.

It is, as Nick Dearden, director of Global Justice Now, described it on a March 17 zoom rally hastily called by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), “a shocking confirmation that this prime minister is governing the country based on some sort of deluded imperial fantasy that he presumably developed as a schoolboy.”

The nuclear arsenal expansion announcement was met by predictable howls of condemnation by many as both immoral and illegal. A spokesperson for the UN Secretary General, António Guterres, expressed his “concern at the UK’s decision to increase its nuclear weapons arsenal, which is contrary to its obligations under Article VI of the NPT.  It could have a damaging impact on global stability and efforts to pursue a world free of nuclear weapons. 

“At a time when nuclear weapon risks are higher than they have been since the Cold War, investments in disarmament and arms control is the best way to strengthen the stability and reduce nuclear danger,” the UN spokesperson said.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas was critical of the UK decision and said that the German government’s opinion was that “We don’t want nuclear weapons arsenals to grow. If you don’t want that to happen, you can’t expand them.” 

But the country’s Labour opposition party, having earlier declared its support for the renewal of Trident — calling UK deterrence “non-negotiable” and prompting a renewed exodus of former party faithfuls — could only manage a watery backpedal, muttering that “this review breaks the goal of successive prime ministers and cross-party efforts to reduce our nuclear stockpile,” according to its leader, Keir Starmer.

The “illegality” comes from the fact that the UK is a signatory to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), whose Article VI is one sentence long and says: “Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”

Like nuclear weapons themselves, under the terms of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons to those countries that have ratified that treaty, the UK decision is illegal.

Britons have suffered under austerity for years and now the covid 19 pandemic and want support for human needs, not bombs. (Photo: Lucas WirlCC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

And of course, thoroughly immoral. At the same time as the nuclear weapons announcement appalled audiences well beyond the disarmament movement, the UK government announced a 1% pay rise for its embattled and heroic frontline National Health Service workers. Yes, that ‘1%’ is not a misprint either. This insult was delivered to the same people the British public was encouraged to sing to and applaud from balconies and front steps, and they got the message loud and clear: Saving lives isn’t valued, but threatening to destroy billions of lives is a profiteers’ Utopia. Or, more accurately, Eldorado.

Who actually benefits from a nuclear weapons boost of course comes as no surprise. Round up the usual suspects! As UK hip-hop artist and campaigner, Lowkey, pointed out during the CND online rally, Lockheed Martin, the company that makes the Trident missiles, saw their stock value rise by over 2% after the March 16 announcement. A similar fortune awaited BAE Systems late last year when an increase in military spending was announced.

“When Boris Johnson says ‘we are ending the era of retreat,’ what he is saying clearly is that there is more money in the pot for Lockheed Martin and BAE Systems,” Lowkey said. But not for the 1.4 million Britains living in lockdown with no recourse to public funds.

Whether it is flag-waving, empire building, or as former South African politician, Andrew Friedman described it, another attempt at “lining the pockets of the national security elite both in the UK and globally,” Gobal Britain aspirations have always lingered for a small island with a massive insecurity complex.

As the unofficial grandfather of CND, Bruce Kent, reminded us, back in 1946 there was a “big row” about “whether Britain would go for nuclear weapons or not.” While then prime minister, Clement Attlee, had reservations, he had an influential party colleague, Ernest Bevin, who, recalled Kent, said in full nationalist flow, “we have got to have this thing [nuclear weapons] over here whatever it costs. We’ve got to have the bloody Union Jack flying on top of it.”

Linda Pentz Gunter writes for and edits Beyond Nuclear International and is the international specialist at Beyond Nuclear.

Headline caricature of Boris Johnson by DonkeyHotey/Creative Commons.

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