1970-1979 | Nuclear Armageddon

Harold Wilson – nuclear weapons help us to woo Washington

Harold Wilson with President Ford in January 1975.
Gerald R. Ford Library via Wikimedia.

20 November 1974

On 20 November 1974, during a Cabinet discussion on nuclear weapons, Prime Minister Harold Wilson presented his reasons why he thought Britain should retain them, with the inevitable consequence that the country would be a prime target in the event of any future nuclear war. Wilson might have argued that, despite the apocalyptic consequences should they ever have to be used, the ‘nuclear option’ was nevertheless an essential deterrent to keep the population safe. However, he didn’t bother to feign any such sentimental idealism.

Instead, the prime minister claimed that it would be undesirable if the French were the only nuclear power in Europe,  that having the arsenal gave us a ‘unique entree to US thinking’ and that it ensured that we could continue to enjoy the political and strategic benefits of the Hot Line to the White House. James Callaghan, the foreign secretary, was in complete agreement, adding that if Britain abandoned its nuclear arsenal, the Germans might see it as a pretext to develop their own.  Most other ministers also concurred, with Peter Shore, the secretary of state for trade, pointing out that nuclear weapons would help mitigate Britain’s declining power in the world. The unspoken implication being that the mere threat of using them would mean that other countries would have to pay us our due respect in the same manner as a shopkeeper might be deferential to a robber waving a shotgun.

Barbara Castle, secretary of state for social services, and Tony Benn, secretary of state for industry, were the only ministers to strongly object.  Castle raised the issue of the £24 million a year cost of maintaining a nuclear deterrent and Benn commented that ‘they were clearly unusable,’ adding that he wasn’t ‘one of those who would want to use them.’  The worst effect was that it fostered a damaging self-deception. ‘The bomb somehow made us feel very powerful. Indeed there were many people in Britain who thought that the Queen and the bomb were the only two weapons we had left. I said I didn’t think either of them were much use.’  Benn’s words fell on deaf ears. Even before he had started to speak, Wilson, confident he already had a majority of ministers’ votes in the bag, had walked out to unveil a plaque to Winston Churchill.3

FOOTNOTE

  1. Ruth Winstone ( editor ), Tony Benn: Against the Tide, Diaries 1973-76, Century Hutchinson, London, pp. 267-269 and Barbara Castle, The Castle Diaries, 1964-1976, Papermac, London, 1990, pp. 522-523.

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