On this day in 1952, Prime Minister Winston Churchill announced that Britain had developed its first nuclear bomb; a longstanding project which still arises much debate on economic and moral grounds.Britain’s love affair with nuclear weapons originated in the Second World War, when, with its scientific feasibility approved in 1941, Churchill ordered the development of an atomic bomb. This was in tune with Britain’s growing alliance with the Americans, who were already deep into the process of developing their own bomb and in 1944 Churchill came to an agreement with US President Franklin D. Roosevelt to amalgamate their efforts with the Manhattan Project. However, this cooperation came to an end in 1946 with the US Energy Act and new Labour Prime Minister Clement Attlee decided to resume an independent nuclear programme.
We have got to have this thing over here whatever it costs… we have got to have [a] bloody Union Jack on top of it
Ernest Bevin, US Foreign Secretary (1945-51)
Churchill’s announcement (himself and the Conservative Party had returned to power after the 1951 General Election) came months prior to Britain’s first nuclear test off the coast of the Monte Bello Islands in October 1952. However, by 1952 the US were already developing the thermonuclear ‘H’ bomb, closely followed by the Soviet Union and the arms race was intensifying. The British cabinet followed suit and detonated their first Hydrogen bomb in May 1957, before re-collaborating with the US under the Mutual Defence Agreement a year later, a piece of legislation that defines the UK-US nuclear relationship to this day.
Britain experimented with the development of air-based weapons in the late-1950s, early 1960s, most notably ‘Blue Steel’ the UK’s first nuclear missile (1962-69), driven by the USA’s Skybolt programme. However, primarily due to their vulnerability to Soviet air defences, the so called V-bombers ceased under the Kennedy Administration, and attention switched to submarine-fired missiles. The UK’s involvement was ensured with the Nassau Agreement 1962, where Prime Minister Harold Macmillan agreed access to American Polaris missiles which would be launched from British submarines, and this began with HMS Resolution in 1968. The UK were then to ratify the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in November 1968, in line with the USA, the Soviet Union and 40 other signatory states, committing them to eventual nuclear disarmament.
In July 1980, Thatcher declared the acquisition of Trident from the US to replace the aging Polaris system, but it was not until December 1994 until the Trident-carrying Vanguard submarines began to go on patrol, the system which is in use to this day.
The UK’s nuclear history at a glance appears to suggest a despairing desire to cling on to its imperialist past as Britain tries to retain its superpower status post World War Two, began under Britain’s long-celebrated colonialist Winston Churchill. In reality, the only real world superpowers which emerged from the war were the USA and Russia. Given the nuclear inventories detailed below, Britain (215 warheads) is clearly far behind the US (6,800), and would be obliterated in any kind of nuclear conflict with Russia (7,000). Britain’s entitlement to nuclear armory is further undermined by their absence in Japan and Germany, both of whom Britain trail economically, suggesting a dated superiority complex; and furthermore the ‘independent’ nuclear deterrent is unequivocally dependent on US support. Hence, given Britain’s social and economic situation, does the estimated £50bn renewal of Trident have any legitimacy? Please share your thoughts.