So Jeremy Corbyn has said that he would never press the nuclear button. I leave for others the political problems which might arise were he to become prime minister, but I think about the moral position. I use my imagination to try to understand. I am now prime minister and I have been reliably told that Russian nuclear missiles are on their way. (replace Russia with any large power you choose) While our defences are good, there is a high chance that one or two will land on the UK. And since the Russian armoury is huge there are plenty more to follow if the first fusillade fails. I realise that these bombs make Hiroshima no more than a firecracker by comparison – we are talking about virtually the whole of London, and many other large cities, being destroyed, and casualties in several millions.
Should I press the button? The result will be to add to our deaths the deaths of people like us in Russia. Could that ever be justified? Of course I can create a quick moral argument: I am acting in self defence against a great evil. I do not intend their deaths directly. Only a defence in kind has a chance of stopping the attack and disabling the Russian armoury. But I know that, in practice, there will be a tit for tat nuclear duel which must end in no victory – only a desert of smoking flesh. The survivors will be me, in my protected bunker, and my Russian counterparts in theirs. I remember that Catholic teaching on these matters requires a reasonable prospect that commensurably good outcomes will be achieved. I am far from convinced that they would be.
General Sir Nicholas Houghton, the outgoing chief of the defence staff, leapt up and down in rage, claiming that the purpose of nuclear armaments was deterrence, and that they had already kept the world safer by their existence and their potential use. A prime minister who would refuse to use them would put us all into hazard. The argument is a strong one, yet it seem extraordinary that we can only preserve peace by threatening the destruction of the human race.
And there is a flaw in this. What defence do we have against rogue states who already have nuclear capability, and those who might acquire this – perhaps with the help of self-serving allies? The Iranian nuclear programme brought about a dozen years of argument with the US, and many would claim that the current settlement could easily be breached in the right circumstances. How about Israel, thought to be the sixth largest nuclear power, with about 100 warheads and ability to build atomic, neutron and hydrogen bombs? What trust do you put in North Korea with Kim Jong-un in charge? It only requires a smaller state with no other means of defence to turn to nuclear protection for its own survival to set the unstoppable ball rolling. Remember the Cuban missile crisis.
I am a fan of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) because they keep alive warnings of the hazards involved, but in practical reality I see such movements as only chipping away at the edges. The idea that one might persuade every state in the world to destroy the nuclear weapons and the capacity to make them is in cloud cuckoo land. As long as one state retains them so will the others.
You may convince me otherwise, but I think my imaginary course as prime minister would be to resolve not to press the button, but, unlike Corbyn, to keep quiet about my intentions. What do you think?