General Sir John Hackett once put me right about the meaning of nuclear deterrence. As far as the military was concerned, the concept of "mutually assured destruction" didn't come into it.
It wasn't that each side's possession of nuclear bombs deterred the other from firing off its own. Nato's nuclear weapons had a specific, strategic purpose –to deter the Red Army from sweeping across the north German plain, isolating Denmark and sealing off the Baltic.
Certainly, Nato’s conventional forces could put up a fight but, just as certainly, would speedily be overwhelmed. At that point, only the threat of escalation to nuclear combat would force a Soviet rethink and withdrawal back to the cold war lines laid down in 1945.
This may or may not have made military, political or any other sort of sense. Hackett’s point was that the circumstances requiring nuclear deterrence had to be definable, that war wasn’t a cartoonish matter of national leaders engaged in a stand-off spooking one another by jabbing a finger towards the button while muttering – Go on, I dare you . . . Which is the way some British political and military leaders now appear to envisage the scenario unfolding.
Hackett, I have little doubt, would have been on Jeremy Corbyn’s side in the controversy arising from his declaration that he cannot foresee circumstances in which he would order the launch of a nuclear missile. The circumstances outlined by Hackett no longer exist.
The general was well-placed to make the relevant judgment. He had served as commander of the British army on the Rhine and as deputy chief of the general staff. He had also had a stint in the early 1960s as commander of British forces in the North. It was in this context that I had come to see him at King's College in London, where he had become principal after retiring from the army in 1968. I wanted to talk about the British strategy towards the IRA. The obsolescence of nuclear deterrence apart, he wanted to reminisce about Ruairí Ó Brádaigh issuing the order to dump arms in 1962 and to recall pleasant occasions when Provisional IRA leader Dáithí Ó Conaill had visited him at his holiday home in Donegal. This was during a period of intense conflict in the North. Hackett was never numbered among the buttoned-down tendency within Britain's top brass.
At his death in 1977, every broadsheet obituary referred to the likelihood he would have become Britain's number one soldier, the chief of the general staff, had there not been, as a writer in the Telegraph put it, "a touch of the maverick" about him. Nobody has ever accused Britain's current top soldier, Gen Sir Nicholas Houghton, of maverick tendencies. On the Andrew Marr Show on BBC1 last Sunday, he claimed that Corbyn's position had undermined "the credibility of deterrence". Unless the enemy believed that you were willing to nuke them, they wouldn't be frightened off. Houghton didn't say and Marr didn't think to ask – deterring which enemy from doing what and why are nuclear weapons needed to achieve this outcome? "Deterrence" appears to have become a free-floating concept, an abstract noun in no need of a sentence. Britain's nuclear weapons and the Trident delivery-system are both hugely expensive and utterly useless.
We have the word of David Cameron that, "overwhelmingly", the most dangerous threat to Britain today arises from the blow-back savagery of Islamic State. But neither IS nor any other discernible threat can possibly be deterred by nuclear submarines prowling the ocean waiting for word from Whitehall to tap in the co-ordinates of whatever city or facility has been selected for vaporisation.
In his memoir, A Journey, Tony Blair conceded that Trident's value was "non-existent in terms of military use" – before adding that cancelling the system would represent an intolerable "downgrading" of Britain's place in the world.
Last week, Conservative chairman of the Commons foreign affairs select committee
estimated the cost of renewing Trident at £167 billion. Money is so tight people with disabilities have to take a hit. But it is money no object when it comes to nuclear bombs which nobody can explain the need for. It is about keeping up appearances, about strutting your stuff and swanking around the world. It is about acting big when you’re feeling small.
Corbyn has caused consternation among British conservatives and almost all of the mainstream media not because his ideas are odd-ball or extreme but because upon examination, many make plain sense. It is for this reason that many in positions of privilege in Britain are determined to subject him to raillery and skit rather than subject his politics to serious scrutiny.
You can learn all you need to know about British politics these days from the fact that only the mavericks now make sense.