Remarks to the First Sea Lord’s Symposium on the 60th Anniversary of the Polaris Sales Agreement

May 26, 2023

Royal Naval College, Greenwich 18 May 2023


Rt Hon Lord Robertson of Port Ellen KT GCMG


For the organisers of this symposium and the First Sea Lord it takes a special courage or maybe boldness to ask someone like me to do the key speech in the 60th anniversary dinner of the Polaris Sales Agreement.

Someone who started a long and varied political career at Ardnadam Pier in 1961 aged fifteen, protesting at the arrival of the Polaris-armed US Ballistic Missile Submarines in the Holy Loch near my home.

Someone who used to know the words of the songs sung at the time. ‘You canny spend a dollar when you’re deid’. And ‘It’s to hell wi Polaris or the poor old human race’. Who searched out campsites for the protesters while his policeman father was simultaneously arresting them. Someone who preached the usual unilateralist narrative of ‘the world will follow us’, ‘it robs conventional defence’, ‘five minutes to Armageddon’, ‘disarm by example’, ‘the immorality/illegality of nuclear weapons’ – the same arguments still rattling around in some minority quarters of public opinion.

But maybe the decision is not so bold or rashly courageous. After all, I made that journey from the Holy Loch eventually to the top of the Ministry of Defence and as Britain’s Defence Secretary was a custodian of the very weapons I had cut my teeth on denying. Over the years in between I had rehearsed these old arguments and found each of them wanting. The initial passion for a world free of these terrible weapons remains as firm as ever but the process of getting there, if we can, has changed as the vacuity and danger of the unilateralist argument has become obvious. I have become, by ruthless education and rational re-examination, a firm believer in nuclear deterrence.

I once confessed about this start on my politics across the dining table in the White House only to get President George W Bush, the same age as I am, to dismiss it because at the same age he had been ‘raising hell’ and did not want to be reminded of it.

But if one wanted a particular time to proclaim and promote the idea of nuclear deterrence and the existence of a particular man to explode the empty slogans of unconditionally abandoning our deterrent, the time is now and the man is Vladimir Putin. Those who would further reduce the decision making centres of Western nuclear retaliation at a time when Putin is raising the readiness levels of the Strategic Rocket Forces, have little care for the safety of our people. Putin’s recklessness and irresponsibility in rattling the nuclear cage has reminded the rest of the world that only the veiled possibility of terrible retaliation makes his threat incredible and impossible.

The Polaris Sales Agreement sixty years ago shifted a number of political and military tectonic plates.  The United States of America had decided to share the awesome burden of nuclear nationhood with a trusted ally. Giving and sharing the means of Continuous at Sea Deterrence was not done easily or indeed cheaply, but it had huge consequences in the world as a whole.

And what it also did was to cement that real special relationship between the United Kingdom and the United States. As I was to find – perhaps to my surprise, there is a binding, umbilical network of personal and professional relationships between both countries ranging across the military, the civil service, the intelligence services and the diplomats. It is at the very heart of the shared values of freedom, democracy and collective security we seek to protect.

That valuable, indeed priceless, spiders web of interactions at so many levels has produced over my life a vital connection which multiplies the protections for our peaceful way of life.

The fact that our Trident armed ballistic missile submarines, undetectable, invulnerable and invisible, can patrol twenty-four hours a day, three hundred and sixty five days a year gives a unique degree of insurance from nuclear attack. As our deterrent is committed to NATO that insurance – adding to the US nuclear umbrella, is an essential guarantee of both national and alliance security. Much missed in this fraught debate is the fact that with our nuclear deterrent committed to NATO, any urge by other allies to acquire nuclear weapons is eliminated. Our record in controlling proliferation is all too often ignored.

And that poses a question for all of us her tonight. Why are we so reticent to proclaim the value to our national security of our British independent nuclear capability? Why have we left the debate to be dominated by those who reject our possession, and indeed renewal of our post-Polaris system? A policy backed by a multi-party vote in Parliament, one of the few national endeavours to survive many electoral cycles, it needs and deserves constant high-level public endorsements. We should be ‘loud and proud’.

Of course a defence based on the balance of terror, which is what nuclear deterrence is, is uncomfortable and many do struggle with its moral implications. But the hard reality is that these weapons cannot be uninvented or indeed wished away.  And so long as we live in a world where they are in the possession of malign and hostile characters and nations then nuclear deterrence is absolutely necessary.

Putin has, with his unprovoked invasion of Ukraine – a country protected by the so-called ‘assurances’ given in the Budapest Memorandum when that country gave up its nuclear weapons, has shown us what the stakes are in this turbulent and volatile world. It is no less than the wholesale reordering of the rules-based system we have enjoyed since World War 2.

Indeed, he has woken all of us up to the essential priority of having an answer to both nuclear attack – and nuclear blackmail.

Like most people in this glorious room and beyond it I want to live in a world without these weapons of mass destruction – and we must continue to strive to get there. But we have to create the benign global conditions where they are unnecessary or undesirable. But in a new era of Great Power competition, with China projected to have 1,500 warheads by 2035 and Putin adding weekly to his already oversized arsenal, such benign conditions seem a long way off.

And so Continuous At Sea Deterrence, initiated by that Polaris Sales Agreement sixty years ago, will remain a bedrock of our defence and the the ultimate protection of our national survival.

I pay tribute therefore tonight to those who far-sightedly negotiated the Agreement and salute all the thousands of the men and women of the submarine service , and the civilians and in industry, who have delivered it over the years since then. They have too often been literally and politically below the surface and on this anniversary they deserve the nation’s thanks and gratitude.

I am honoured to have the opportunity to personally, warmly thank them all.

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