I’d never press the nuclear button – here’s why

“Would you ever be prepared to use a nuclear weapon?” This question is increasingly put to politicians as some kind of virility test. The subtext is that to be a credible political leader, you must be willing to use an indiscriminate weapon of mass destruction – killing millions, or even tens of millions, of innocent people.

When the Liberal Democrat leader, Jo Swinson, was asked the question last week, she pondered it for a mere split second before calmly replying, “Yes.”

The consequences of this position should be made clear. The only time nuclear weapons have been used in war was the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the US at the end of the second world war. The atomic bombs killed tens of thousands instantly. Radiation sickness killed many more. The first bomb destroyed five square miles of Hiroshima.

No country has launched a nuclear attack since, but the world shortly afterwards entered a dangerous arms race. The nuclear weapons around today dwarf the bombs dropped in Japan. The death toll from a modern nuclear strike would not be counted in the tens of thousands, but in the millions.

There is a theory – and it is one I fundamentally disagree with – that nuclear weapons make us safer, as no country would pick a fight with a nuclear power. But even those who buy into the idea of mutually assured destruction should balk at the casual way in which political discourse on this topic has developed.

If a mainstream politician unblinkingly said that they would use chemical weapons against civilians there would be uproar. If a self-proclaimed candidate for prime minister boasted that they would commit war crimes, it would be a national scandal.

Nuclear weapons should be seen no differently – but a dated cold war mentality is used to cloak these weapons of mass destruction in respectability.

Their potential for death and destruction deserve better than trigger-happy bravado. It’s time that nuclear advocates spelt out the reality of what their position means.

In 1961, despite public protests, the first US Polaris submarine sailed into Holy Loch in Argyll. By the end of that decade the UK had launched its own nuclear fleet, with four Polaris submarines based at Faslane. For 50 years nuclear submarines have been operational less than 30 miles from Glasgow, Scotland’s main population centre.

Like many other Scots, I’ve always been appalled that Britain’s nuclear arsenal has been kept in my backyard. And I’ve always been astounded that UK government after UK government has paid the enormous cost of maintaining these dangerous weapons while children grow up in poverty in their shadow.

I joined the Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament even before I joined the SNP. I don’t just want a Scotland free of nuclear weapons – I want a world free of nuclear weapons.

But I have always felt that the only way to get nuclear weapons off the Clyde is for Scotland to become independent. This election campaign proves my point. Swinson is not alone in racing to embrace nuclear weapons to prove her leadership.

Jeremy Corbyn, a long-time supporter of the CND, is now fully signed up to renewing Trident. While I have my differences with Corbyn, on this issue I believe that, in his heart of hearts, he still feels the same as I do.

Yet, in attempting to become prime minister, the Labour leader feels the need to sell out his principled opposition to Trident and promise to keep it on the Clyde.

The UK government has slashed conventional defence personnel and left Scotland without the defence capabilities that a maritime nation actually needs. We would be better protected, with more jobs, without Trident.

Labour’s position is now that it supports a world free of nuclear weapons – but that the route there is to renew the missiles we already have. Like mutually assured destruction before it, this theory of multilateral disarmament relies on a massive leap of logic.

We don’t make the world safer by making it more dangerous first. The cold war showed that developing nuclear weapons encourages an endless escalation, with status-obsessed powers demanding bigger and more destructive stockpiles.

Even the progress made since the 1980s has proven to be built on unsteady ground. This year the US and Russia both withdrew from a key nuclear treaty, banning intermediate-range missiles. The last thing we need is a new arms race.

The UK has an opportunity to show real, global leadership. It’s not enough to wait for other countries to see the error of their ways while spending tens of billions on new weapons for ourselves – with one estimate putting the lifetime cost of a new generation of Trident missiles at £200bn.

We should lead the way by scrapping nuclear weapons and investing that money in our communities and our public services.

The fact that the Westminster parties are united in their opposition to this approach will only confirm to many Scots that independence is the only way to scrap Trident once and for all.

My message is simple – the overwhelming majority of countries the world over do not have nuclear weapons. We do not need nuclear weapons. And we should never, ever use nuclear weapons.

This article originally appeared in The Observer.