One of the most memorable incidents of the 2017 general election occurred during a BBC Question Time special broadcast from York, where Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn separately took questions from the same studio audience. During Corbyn's session, he was challenged the group of men who inspired the alleged anti-white racial slur “gammon”.
As Joe Kennedy recalls in his 2018 book Authentocrats:
“The youngest of the nine was perhaps in his mid-forties, the oldest slightly shy of eighty; all were men, all white, if also, typically, irately puce. All, moreover, spoke with Yorkshire accents of at least some degree of unimpressed bluffness as they attacked the Labour leader over his perceived sympathies for terrorists and, most strikingly, his reluctance to employ Trident, Britain's submarine-based nuclear deterrent. At one point, the intensity of the accusations about Corbyn's unwillingness to 'push the red button' hit such an elevated pitch of ridiculousness that a young woman in the audience was moved to enquire as to 'why everyone in this room seems so obsessed with killing millions of people'.”
Kennedy dubbed them “the nine Yorkshiremen of the Apocalypse”, and thought the incident was a perfect illustration of how the British media likes to use an artificial understanding of what “real” people look and sound like to both voice and enforce a politics which serves the ruling class.
So perhaps it is no surprise that, with another election now under way, the “Why Won't You Blow Up The World, Jeremy?” discourse is back.
Last Tuesday, during the Lib Dems's campaign launch, Jo Swinson pledged that she would never participate in any coalition that might put Jeremy Corbyn in 10 Downing Street, for the simple reason that she doubted he would write “letters of last resort”, authorising the pilots of Trident nuclear submarines to launch a nuclear counterattack. A few days later both Swinson and her Deputy, Sir Ed Davey were quizzed on Channel 4 News.
“Are you personally willing to press the nuclear button?” anchor Cathy Newman asked.
“Yes,” Swinson replied, sounding every bit as if she'd just been asked if contactless was OK.
“Yes,” offered Davey, with a sort of solemn half-nod as if to briefly contemplate the significance of this admission – that, if push came to shove, he found himself forced to take this Very Difficult Decision, he would be happy to exterminate all life on earth.
Swinson and Davey, it's worth emphasising, are discussing taking a decision which would likely result in the deaths of millions of people. And the answer that Swinson and Davey both give, to the hypothetical question of whether they would bring all this down upon the world – with no particular context to flesh it out – is simply: “Yes.”
They don't even particularly seem to engage with the substance of what they'd be acquiescing in here – no additional context is required to this hypothetical situation before they answer “yes”.
Maybe I could understand a frothing-at-the-mouth warmonger. But Swinson and Davey seem to want to push the button for no greater reason than that they think pushing the button is what they would be expected to do. They are like the participants in the famous Milgram experiment, where subjects were told by the researchers that they had to administer a sequence of ultimately fatal electric shocks to another participant “for the good of the experiment” – and most did it (fortunately the shock-ees were fictional).
What's going on here? Historically, after all, the Lib Dems have been committed to nuclear disarmament: see this communiqué by Tim Farron discussing Trident renewal in 2017. Even Swinson herself was quoted welcoming the delay to Trident renewal in 2010. But power changes people, and the Lib Dems – high off their performance in May's European elections, an influx of new ex-Tory MPs, and their own weird polls – seem to think they've got a whiff of it. And so they are donning their best statesmanlike suits, and announcing in public their ongoing commitment to the horrors of war.
They're not the only ones. Perhaps indeed there is some prospect of the Lib Dems working with Labour following the election after all, as on Monday morning – during an interview on Good Morning Britain with Piers Morgan – Emily Thornberry, the Shadow Foreign Secretary, suggested that maybe Corbyn's pacifism could be tempered by committee. “I don’t necessarily believe that [the decision to deploy Trident] will be made by one individual,” she told Morgan. “I suspect that the way that Jeremy makes decisions is that he takes advice and we work collectively. We will do everything we can in order to protect our country if it becomes necessary.”
Elections always seem likely to lead a heightened militarism – and this time around, the campaign has coincided with a particularly bombastic poppy season. The Tory base, in particular, is wired to respond well to it: hence why one of their flagship campaign promises is to amend the Human Rights Act in order to rob the victims of the Troubles in Northern Ireland of justice.
But the Tories are defined by their contempt for all life on earth – or at any rate, all life that doesn't earn more than around £60,000 a year. It makes sense for them to lead their campaign with this nonsense. But then why on earth does everyone else seem so determined to go along with it? During the last election, polls indicated broad support for Corbyn's foreign policy – with 53 percent of respondents to one YouGov agreeing that wars the UK has fought or supported have contributed to terror attacks against the UK. That seems like a good basis for shifting the Overton window.
Trident – a relic of another world – has become a sort of test of national faith. If animated with the full consent of a “strong” Prime Minister, the country itself is able to remain strong, unsullied; Britannia forever undefeated.
To combat the chilling horror of Swinson and Davey's Channel 4 interview, we need to question this image of what a “strong” leader looks like. In truth, there is nothing about the empty militarism of these Lib Dem high-ups, blankly voicing their commitment to “push the button”, that doesn't stink of cowardice. Swinson and Davey come across as weak people who will unreflectively acquiesce in whatever it is they feel they are supposed to, just to get maybe, slightly, closer to power.
Perhaps indeed if this country does one day stumble towards assuming the final role in the nuclear destruction of all things, it will not be because anyone in particular wants this to happen, but rather the result of the same logic that informs pretty much everything else this country decides to do: an empty, cynical malaise.