By Dave Sewell
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Nuclear cover-up misfires for Theresa May

This article is over 7 years, 3 months old
Issue 2538
A Trident missile in happier times
A Trident missile in happier times

Was Theresa May’s first act as prime minister last year to cover up a nuclear missile gone haywire? 

That’s the disturbing question raised by revelations last Sunday of a Trident missile misfiring.

The nuclear-powered HMS Vengeance submarine was carrying out the first test of Britain’s weapons of mass destruction in four years last June.

It fired a dummy missile. The real one would carry warheads eight times more destructive than the one that destroyed the Japanese city of Hiroshima in 1945.

It went in the opposite direction—towards the United States instead of an empty patch of ocean—and had to be destroyed in mid-air.

Normally the footage of missile tests is made public. This one wasn’t.  The Sunday Times newspaper, which revealed the incident, called it a “news blackout”.

And by a strange coincidence, MPs were preparing to vote on the renewal of Trident the following month. Newly-installed prime minister Theresa May made a big speech in its favour.

Labour and the Scottish National Party (SNP) have rightly demanded an explanation for what Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn called “a pretty catastrophic error”.

There was even outrage among Tories and military chiefs. Admiral Lord West, the Labour peer and former First Sea Lord, called the cover-up “bizarre and stupid”.

Tory MP Julian Lewis, chair of the defence select committee, said “whichever person decided they wanted to draw a veil over” the failed test “should have been sacked”. That person was a Tory prime minister.

Former Tory prime minister David Cameron, still in office at the time of the test, would have been informed of its result.

The decision to withhold it couldn’t have been made without his approval.


May would probably have been briefed during the handover even without the looming Trident debate. Preparing for her Commons speech in Trident’s defence would make that a certainty.

She praised Trident as “our ultimate safeguard” while knowing that it had just badly misfired.

Nuclear weapons have always gone hand in hand with secrecy and lies, not least in Britain.

Labour prime minister Clement Attlee first decided to develop them in 1947 without telling the public, parliament or even the cabinet.

In 2015 whistleblower Able Seaman William McNeilly went on the run from Faslane naval base where Trident submarines are stationed.

He had to risk jail to reveal that health and safety practices there were a “disaster waiting to happen”.

And lie upon lie is needed to justify Trident’s existence.

It is supposed to keep the world safer.  Yet the existence of nuclear weapons drags other countries into a race to develop more and more.

An independent deterrent

An independent deterrent? (Pic: Tim Sanders)

There are now enough nuclear bombs to destroy humanity several times over. If even one were fired it could incinerate hundreds of thousands of people.

Trident is supposed to be an “independent” deterrent.  Yet it cannot be operated without US participation.

Its cost is staggering, with renewal estimated at up to £200 billion over the lifetime of the project.

To squander such money at a time when Tory austerity is plunging the NHS deep into crisis is absolutely criminal.

Politicians claim it is necessary to safeguard jobs. Shamefully some trade union leaders, such as Unite general secretary Len McCluskey, go along with this.

But Trident is a job destroyer. The money it soaks up—roughly £18 million per job, a new report suggests—could create up to ten times more jobs if spent on almost any public service.

The government was expected to make a statement about the test, the malfunction and the cover-up in parliament on Tuesday.

May’s missile crisis is an opportunity to go on the offensive against her government and against the atrocity that is Trident renewal.

Many establishment figures, even among those most riled by the government’s conduct, will do all in their power to limit the damage to the credibility of Trident as a whole.

But the one thing worse than a misfiring nuclear missile would be one that was on target.

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