Rachael Maskell MP: As a Christian, I'm opposed to ministers using Westminster Abbey to celebrate terrible nuclear weapons
Instead of celebrating these weapons, we should be embracing the opportunity to work towards disarmament for humanitarian good, the Labour MP writes.
The new Defence Secretary will join members of the Royal Navy and clergy at Westminster Abbey on Friday to take part in a ‘thanksgiving service’ marking 50 years of the so-called ‘continuous at sea deterrent’ (CASD).
Nuclear weapons are terrible weapons of mass destruction, designed to threaten, maim and kill millions of people. We saw the catastrophic impact of their use, at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in 1945, and their use again would be a tragedy beyond measure.
To contemplate giving thanks for such weapons, in one of the nation’s most celebrated places of worship, is deeply shocking.
Reverend Hugh Lee of Oxford wrote in the Church Times last week that “the barely hidden agenda of the Ministry of Defence in approaching the Abbey was surely to put down a marker for the continuation of Trident policy.”
As a Christian, I believe that a place of worship like Westminster Abbey should focus its worship on God. The proposed service is nothing short of an act of idolatry of something which has the potential to destroy the lives of innocent people.
The Trident nuclear weapons system is made up of four nuclear submarines, each of which can carry up to eight missiles. Each of these missiles can carry up to five nuclear warheads. A single warhead is eight times as destructive as the bomb which destroyed Hiroshima killing a reported 200,000 innocent people.
The indiscriminate way that these weapons impact on entire populations means that their use would be illegal under international law. If the UK was to ever use these weapons, they could not be used selectively - meaning that it would be impossible to avoid massive civilian casualties.
Even a ‘limited’ nuclear war would kill millions, not only through the immediate blast, but also through causing extensive lethal harm from radiation and impacting on subsequent generations; it would also devastate the world’s climate and ecosystems, causing widespread starvation as a plunging global temperature would impact on agricultural production.
Instead of addressing these concerns, the Government is replacing our current nuclear weapons system, Trident, at a cost of at least £205 billion.
This is in spite of the fact that technological developments – such as cyber-attack and underwater drone technology – are likely to render the system obsolete. These vast sums of tax payers’ money should instead be spent on reversing debilitating cuts to our vital public services, investing in local communities and supporting climate change initiatives.
When it comes to the right and proper question of defence, the Government’s own national security strategy recognises that the chief threats we face come from terrorism, cyberattack, climate change, and the likes of pandemics and organised crime. This is the new security reality, not the ‘city-buster’ nukes of the confrontational Cold War era.
The enormous challenges that we face as a global community – such as the climate emergency – require cooperation among nations, not a new nuclear arms race that could see us headed for extinction. They do not require the continuation or celebration of nuclear weapons – they require a new vision for a world of peace without weapons of mass destruction, with resources employed for the advancement of society not its eradication.
Last year, the Church of England General Synod passed a motion stating that “nuclear weapons, through their indiscriminate and destructive potential, present a distinct category of weaponry that requires Christians to work tirelessly for their elimination across the world".
Our government would do well to heed principles such as these, and at the very least show respect for the values of the church. Using Westminster Abbey to host this service completely contradicts this motion and the teachings of the church.
The UK is in a tiny minority of countries that insists on clinging to their nuclear weapons. Only nine countries have nuclear weapons. Almost 200 do not. 115 countries are part of nuclear weapons-free zones which cover Southeast Asia, Central Asia, the South Pacific, Latin America and the Caribbean and Africa. In 2017 the United Nations adopted a historic international treaty to ban nuclear weapons, supported by 122 countries.
This treaty will make it illegal under international law for signatories to develop, test, produce, manufacture, acquire, possess, stockpile, transfer, use or threaten to use nuclear weapons. It also makes it illegal to assist or encourage anyone to engage in these activities. The treaty is currently open for signatories and is expected to come into force next year.
It’s time for Britain to join the global majority. The Government should be following the example of the Church of England Synod and the international leadership from the United Nations.
Instead of celebrating these weapons, we should be embracing the opportunity to work towards disarmament for humanitarian good. The Church should be using its influence to encourage the government to engage with the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and work towards a world without nuclear weapons.
Rachael Maskell is Labour and Co-operative MP for York Central and a Shadow Transport Minister.