‘Supreme emergency’: How Britain lives with the bomb

Andrew Corbett, Defence Studies Department, King’s College London

On 7 February 2020, French President Macron made a speech at the Ecole De Guerre on French deterrence strategy.  This continued a tradition started by President de Gaulle in 1959 and sustained by every incoming French president since.  Every French president makes a keynote speech on nuclear deterrence and its role in their defence and deterrence strategy; no British Prime Minister ever has.  Why not?

I am not an ethicist, but as a serving member of the armed forces (and since) I have given a great deal of thought to the morality of the use of force and, in particular, in the concept of nuclear deterrence.  I served in Polaris and Trident ballistic missile submarines (SSBN) on and off since 1986, including command of two Vanguard class submarines: HMS Vengeance and HMS Vanguard, between 2003 and 2007. I therefore have had ample opportunity, and motivation, to reconcile the full potential of my personal responsibilities with some kind of moral compass.

The ethics and strategy associated with deterrence are inextricably linked to the technologies exploited.  As the Commanding Officer of an SSBN, I was always personally content with the ethical and strategic aspects of my responsibilities, and I would discuss them with my ship’s company; but I wasn’t sure that I could articulate them in terms of which the MOD would approve.  So, I asked within my ‘command chain’ what they would approve of; fruitlessly, as it turned out.  If the MOD could not articulate the official rationale for the UK’s Strategic Nuclear Deterrent to its own SSBN Commanding Officers, what did that say for its ability to make a coherent argument in public?  In the absence of formal guidance, the available contemporary academic literature offered only rather binary options: either all those involved in the business of deterrence were acting immorally, or there was a shortfall in the literature.  

I do not accept that all of the very honourable professionals with whom I served are merely immoral, too stupid to notice or too hypocritical to care. Nor are they amoral in the Machiavellian realist sense. Neither I, nor they (I believe), accept that there are no appropriate rules that should be governing this highly emotive and very difficult area of moral thinking.  

I have written elsewhere on my understanding of the role of ethics in nuclear deterrence.  My core hypothesis is that there are always moral principles that apply to the use of force, but in situations of extreme peril – a supreme emergency – the consequences of failure may be so horrendous that action to avert it might exceptionally breach usually accepted norms of behaviour.  For those involved in such decisions, moral discussion of those circumstances is complex enough in camera. It has also proven extremely demanding in Parliament and is well-nigh impossible in modern media, especially on social media.  In the end, I wrote a book about it considering the evolution of these debates and their impact on British deterrence policy and its public presentation.

The British government reacted with moral outrage to the German bombing of undefended British cities in the First World War but participated in the protracted and still hotly contested strategic bombing campaign of the Second World War, which caused tens of thousands of civilian casualties in German cities.  Winston Churchill argued that in some circumstances, the consequences of defeat were so horrendous that temporary abrogation of otherwise inviolable moral rules could be countenanced – the ‘supreme emergency’.  He was actually referring to the abrogation of the rights of neutral states, but the argument was extrapolated to encompass the use of strategic bombing and the associated civilian casualties.  

There were intense discussions in Cabinet, in the Air Staff and in Parliament about the moral implications of the strategic bombing campaign.  The core principle of discrimination – deliberate targetting of non-combatants is prohibited – remained absolute.  The debate centred on the principle of proportionality; the level of violence inflicted must be proportional to the military effect achieved. The doctrine of double effect also applied: non-combatant casualties could be accepted if they were not the object of the attack, that every means to minimise them had been taken and that they were proportional to the military effect achieved.  

I do not seek to reach a definitive position on the morality of that campaign but I do endeavour to show that the British Government’s understanding of the strategic realities of the capability and intent of the bombing campaign, certainly from 1943 onwards, bore little relation to government’s public presentation of that strategy.  I argue that this was because of the difficulties of making a complex moral case in public.  It is clear from the public interventions of religious leaders and the paucity of philosophical debate on the topic beforehand that ethical issues of proportionality and non-combatant immunity were novel, highly contentious and only marginally developed.  An embryonic, but highly articulate and energetic opposition emerged during the war – not simple pacifism but a much more sophisticated opposition to specific aspects of modern warfare: night bombing against civilian targets.

The small group of men who comprised the highest level of government, the Cabinet Defence Committee, had to address these issues in the context of a war of unprecedented potential which posed an existential threat to the UK.  They chose to avoid the inevitably contentious and morale-sapping public debate about the difference between ‘unintended but inevitable casualties’ and deliberate targeting of non-combatants.  They clearly believed they had no option if they intended to continue to prosecute the war. The debate continues to this day.  

In 1973, ethicist Michael Walzer suggested that the ‘supreme emergency’ concept might be valid but that those involved in such actions would not be innocent; they would have to accept that they had ‘dirty hands’.  A situation which offers only morally untenable action still demands that one is taken.  The actor who so acts might not be guilty, but they are no longer innocent.  The military quip that alludes to this thinking is: ‘we always have two options; bad and worse.’ 

This reticence evolved as essentially the same group of men were in authority as the UK developed a nuclear deterrent capability.  Its impact on the excessive secrecy surrounding every aspect of British nuclear deterrence policy is difficult to overstate.  In the early stages, the 1950s and early 1960s, the nascent opposition to nuclear weapons (which has coalesced into the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) was essentially ignored.  The Polaris replacement decision in 1980, coincident with the deployment of US cruise missiles, contributed to an upsurge in anti-nuclear feeling. Although the Thatcher government initially sought simply to ignore CND, in 1983 Defence Secretary Michael Heseltine orchestrated a very modern media campaign seeking to undermine the credibility of the CND leadership, rather than engage in public.  

While the lack of government engagement with any anti-nuclear lobby is striking, no less so is the delicacy with which such policy was handled in cabinet.  In 1981, Defence Secretary John Nott intended to open and close the debate on nuclear policy (the replacement of Polaris with Trident) because he felt that “two Ministers can[not] be expected to have the time to master the strategic options and philosophical arguments”[1]  Mrs Thatcher felt that they should.  

Although there is more information openly available about the UK’s nuclear deterrence posture in 2022 than probably at any time, the reticence remains.  Defence Secretaries tend to make a public speech about nuclear deterrence policy about once every 5-10 years. In 2007, Des Browne noted that the previous speech on UK nuclear deterrence policy had been given by Malcolm Rifkind in 1993.  Liam Fox spoke in 2010 and Michael Fallon in 2016.  Opposition to nuclear weapons continues. The UN Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons entered into force in 2021 and Pope Francis has hardened the Vatican position on nuclear weapons: “The use of atomic energy for purposes of war is immoral, just as the possession of atomic weapons is immoral.”  Although the terminology used to describe UK nuclear posture has changed little since the 1998 Strategic Defence Review, the 2021 Integrated Review did announce that the stockpile limit would increase and numbers of deployed weapons would no longer be divulged. As George Orwell is reputed to have said, “People sleep peacefully in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.”  This addresses a sentiment that much of the benefit of a civilised society is protected by the notion that ‘rough men’ would use violence to protect it. It’s just that we just don’t talk about it much; “Supreme Emergency” tries to look at why not.  In the end, it is a personal account; it portrays my understanding of why and how the UK procured and sustained a strategic nuclear deterrent, the moral issues involved, their relations with strategic decisions, the impact they had on the political decision-makers, and the way successive governments felt able to portray these issues to the electorate, and the rough people prepared for dirty hands in a supreme emergency on their behalf. 

Image copyright: Crown Copyright
Source: Wikipedia

[1] MOD Personal memorandum Nott (MOD) to Prime Minister MO18/1/1 ‘Trident, Public Attitudes’ dated 2 Feb 81. UK National Archives file PREM 19/555

One thought on “‘Supreme emergency’: How Britain lives with the bomb

  1. By eerie coincidence, I was just having an online discussion with some colleagues about Tom Stevenson’s article in the London Review of Books for 24 February entitled ‘A Tiny Sun’
    It’s a review of ‘The Bomb: Presidents, Generals, and the Secret History of Nuclear War’ by Fred Kaplan and also ‘The Myth of the Nuclear Revolution: Power Politics in the Atomic Age’ by Keir A Lieber, who I believe came to Kings some years ago to give an address on nuclear weapons, and very interesting it was too (if I’ve got the right chap)
    By another coincidence, I was also writing about Putin’s threat to use nuclear weapons. Presumably he means tactical, battlefield weapons and I was trying to work up an argument to say that these were useful in attack, where you don’t mind irradiating and enemy’s territory, but not much good in defence, where you would be irradiating your own
    The problem of course is managing escalation, and there is a healthy canon of literature about this, but of course it hasn’t been tested from the nuclear point of view
    I was trying to link that to the concept of ‘tacit agreed competition’, as is the current suggestion on cyber security (see ‘Lawfare’, a US blog). It’s pretty bloody awful, but if a defender can match a tactical nuclear attack with a retaliation of exactly the same size, does that send the right message? Let’s hope we don’t have to find out


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