The following is an article I wrote originally for the website scientificblogging.com
Des Browne was Minister of Defence in the Blair and Brown governments and MP for Kilmarnock from 1997 to 2008.
Father Joseph Boland is now the parish priest at St Bride's Catholic Church in West Kilbride.
I'm reproducing the piece here because of the continuing relevance of the arguments.
God and MAD
As Des Browne strides up to me and demands to know who I am, the answer briefly escapes me. It is on the tip of my tongue and will come to me in a moment, I am sure. But whoever I am, this close to a combative Minister of Defence is not where I would like to be.
The occasion is a debate about the morality of replacing Trident, organised by one of Browne’s constituents, Father Joe Boland of St Matthew’s Church, Kilmarnock.
In opening the debate the priest had done a fine job of demolishing the pro-nuclear arguments: “The government says we don’t know what the world will be like in 30 years’ time, so we need nuclear weapons to keep us secure. But if nuclear weapons equal security, then every country in the world should have them.
“If Iran cannot have nuclear weapons when faced with an immediate threat from nuclear powers, what right do we, based on some future threat? It is sheer hypocrisy.”
Deterrence is doomed to failure, he points out, because it must work without error until the end of time. “We have been incredibly lucky so far.”
When Browne stands up he looks edgy but determined. The politics are complex, he says, and the morality unclear. We must prevent more countries getting nuclear weapons, while those that have them disarm gradually and multi-laterally:
“That is the answer to the charge of hypocrisy. That is how we will achieve a nuclear-free world.”
In the meantime, deterrence is no more complicated than self-defence: “I learned when I was young that if I didn’t want to fight I had to carry myself in a particular way. I had to generate a sense, on the streets of Scotland, that I could look after myself.”
He still does, I realise, after he has lost the vote, and spots me taking notes of a conversation with a constituent. On the topic of hypocrisy, Sarah Hall is challenging him on accepting the Minister of Defence post, after attending a rally against the invasion of Iraq.
“I wasn’t there. You’re wrong about that,” he tells her.
She starts to ask about his youthful support for CND, when he notices my notebook and strides over to me. I identify myself and ask a question – not the best question to a man you’ve just met, who already feels under attack.
“I didn’t realise until today that you were brought up as a Catholic …” I begin. But he interrupts, moving closer.
“What has that got to do with anything?” he demands.
“I was wondering about Father Boland’s closing remark,” I explain as rapidly as I can: “That in the end his opposition to replacing Trident springs from his Christianity. Jesus taught us to turn the other cheek and love our neighbour. He would never support nuclear weapons.”
Browne responds that the churches disagree on war and nuclear weapons, but very few of them are in favour of unilateral disarmament. Then he goes on the attack.
“Are you a Christian?” he asks me.
“No,” I say. So he changes tack.
“Were you in favour of intervening in Kosovo?”
“What about Afghanistan?”
“Well…” I prevaricate.
“There you are…” he says and I interrupt, misunderstanding.
“Don’t give me that lawyer’s stuff about having to answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Afghanistan is complex – both militarily and politically.”
“Of course it is. That’s my point,” he replies. “International issues are always complex. It’s all very well saying ‘nuclear weapons are morally wrong’, but we live in a difficult and dangerous world.”
True enough, I think to myself, casting my mind back 25 years to when I was a physicist with a young family, working for Rolls-Royce on the next generation propulsion system for the Navy’s nuclear submarines.
The system that propels the Vanguard class, the largest, most powerful submarines ever built in Britain. The system that carries Trident.
It is time for Des Browne and Father Joe Boland to leave. They are having dinner together at the priest’s home.
“Nice talking to you,” Browne says to me, offering his hand. His grip is firm but not crushing. Deterrent.