It’s that time in the election cycle where leaders step up to the campaign plinth to announce that they would be willing to push the big red button to fire off nuclear weapons, summarily murdering countless thousands of innocent lives and possibly triggering a nuclear war capable of wiping out humanity. This, we are supposed to understand, is a sign of their no-nonsense leadership, their firmness of purpose in the sometimes uncomfortable field of realpolitik, and their ability to connect with the security concerns of Joe Ordinary, who after an honest day’s work presumably loves a quick pint of nuclear radiation down the smouldering remains of the pub. This kind of apocalyptic authentocracy is a reliable feature of the news cycle, like former hedge fund managers in hi-vis and hard hats, nodding at industrial machinery as the press cameras flash.
Once, there was a thriving anti-nuclear movement in this country – in formal politics, in civil society, in the lives of everyday people who got up in the morning and went to bed at night under the shadow of imminent nuclear war. It was daring, organised, and successful in drumming up public support for unilateral disarmament efforts. Since the end of the cold war the shadow has faded, and so has the memory of the anti-nuclear movement. As nuclear panic has dwindled, we’ve forgotten that the material nuclear threat has not. Dotted across the globe – in hangers, in bunkers, under the sea – is the capacity to destroy the world many times over. Our leaders play Doctor Strangelove pantomime in the press junket without any serious efforts to address the actual possibility of actual nuclear war.
It’s the way our politicians solemnly prove themselves fit for public office. Which, of course, speaks volumes about what mainstream politicians and press think that public office should be for – that political power, of course, naturally, without question, is based on the ability to despatch with other human lives in the blink of an eye.
Possessing nuclear weapons is often glossed as fundamental to the protection of society, a basic interest of those who want to secure our freedoms. Not least for Jo Swinson, latest member of the radiation sickness fan club, who proudly identifies as a feminist crusader. Girls rule the ashes now; girls on top of a smouldering pile of bones that once belonged to other girls. The apocalypse liberals are at it again, promising to destroy the world to save the world.
Since the sixties, each new prime minister must write a letter of last resort, to be carried on board of Britain’s nuclear submarines. A set of final instructions for what to do if the government is annihilated in the event of a nuclear war, as the last official act of Her Majesty’s Government.
Liberal statecraft is doublespeak; both about the sacred, irreducible dignity of human rights and freedoms, and the sacred right of a select number of leaders to put people to death if their office demands it. Some people must be killable, shoved into an exceptional state of political death for the rest of politics to function smoothly. Suspected criminals, migrants, foreign combatants, people on the receiving end of drone strikes. Maybe that seems obvious. But it shouldn’t. There are close possible worlds where that is accepted as monstrous.
Many philosophers and political theorists have long defined states as an institution. or set of institutions, with ‘a monopoly on legitimate violence’. This is nothing new. Often progressive politics grapples with how to dismantle and limit that power; when and how to protect people from the violence wielded by the state. Those questions rarely trouble the sleep of people on the right of the spectrum. Some profess to love ‘small state governance’, but that rarely involves unlocking prison doors and disbanding the army. For them, the capacity for violence remains the beating heart of political life, even in its withered form. Now, fascist revivals have some people salivating over fantasies of a nation rejuvenated by unleashing the full power of policeman, soldier and prison guard. And for the mainstream of politics, you prove your worthiness to be at the helm of state by swearing you’re prepared to wield every capacity to its fullest. Why hire a piano player who will not press the keys?
More than 70 years after the first nuclear bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we still haven’t really adjusted to how ludicrous – and how murderous – those old understandings sound when the ever-expanding technology of violence means that states have power not just over individuals or countries, but to obliterate life in its entirety.
Of course, this is easier when our leaders unfailingly assume themselves to be beyond the blast zone, and encourage us to do the same. The people who our leaders volunteer to murder are implicitly foreigners, implicitly not white. The usual suspects for the politically disposable. Anyone who said they would drop a nuclear bomb on Paris would be gasped and jeered off the stage. Anyone who says they won’t drop one on Kabul usually faces the same fate.
In the UK, the power to summarily smite people over there has a particular cultural caché amongst those sections of the minor aristocracy and its acolytes dripping in imperial nostalgia. Nuclear warheads play a proxy for old colonial power. We may no longer have an empire, but we can still murder lots of foreigners, so all is not lost. On the world stage, we are still a force to be reckoned with. Nuclear Britannia will conquer.
Jeremy Corbyn is rare among PM candidates to have not committed himself to nuclear disaster.That much is entirely intuitive, and completely sensible. In a more just world, ‘septuagenarian horticulturalist dislikes mass murder’ should not be headline material. But he has been pilloried for his reluctance, with his former involvement in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament held up as evidence for his fundamental unsuitability for the highest office in the land.
His steady unwillingness to bend to that pressure is the seed of something incredibly radical: the idea that states don’t have an automatic right or moral duty to sew utter destruction overseas. That there should be a limit to the kind and scale of violence that a state can wield. Unthinkable.
The dense network of institutions known as the British state was built to secure the power of landowners, aristocrats and financiers at home, built to administrate and discipline an empire overseas. Any progressive – let alone socialist – project worth its salt won’t succeed if it intends merely to wield, to exercise the kinds of power it would enjoy at the helm of those institutions. Only radical alteration, dismantling, rebuilding will do. Iconoclasts only need apply.
A confession: I’m naturally suspicious of politicians. Of any party, no matter how crammed full of admirables, tasked with signing off the budgets for immigration detention centres and coaxing financiers into temporary cooperation. But Corbyn has something which makes me trust him: an intuitive, intransigent horror at the idea of the state as an instrument of death. It’s how I learned to stop worrying and love a gentle socialist grandad with a tracksuit fixation, as other leaders clamour for the bomb.
Eleanor Penny is a writer and a regular contributor to Novara Media.