JONATHAN POWER On its submarines Britain has 48 nuclear warheads, each one eight times as powerful as the nuclear bomb that obliterated Hiroshima. In other words, theoretically Prime Minister James Cameron could order the almost instant incineration of 384 large cities around the world. Barely anyone in the parliament mentioned it, much less debated it in the many years Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were in office. Not before its time the coalition government of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats appears to be gearing up for a decision, partly because the missiles are slowly but steadily wearing out and partly because many senior voices in the military in the post Cold War world would like to see the money spent on other, more immediately useful, weapons, transport. Many Conservative and Liberal Democrat members of parliament are doubtful about the value of an independent nuclear deterrent. Perhaps there is a window of opportunity for nuclear disarmers, particularly since the British are at the forefront of a European Union and American attempt to persuade Iran to forgo nuclear weapons, a country that lives in a far more dangerous neighbourhood than Britain. After all, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which the West brandishes before Iran, demands categorically that the old 'nuclear haves must seriously engage in nuclear disarmament. Field Marshal Lord Michael Carver, the former chief of the British Defence Staff, argues, The most important thing is to persuade everyone that the target has got to be total elimination. If you start peddling solutions which are not quite total elimination you lose the whole force of the argument. Yet against this passion brought by ex-military men is ranged popular inertia on one side and on the other a deeply embedded culture of nuclear deterrence, not just in the military-industrial complex but in academia and the media. As former West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt (ex nuclear hawk, now a dove) has analysed it, there is an enormous body of vested interests not only through lobbying in Washington, and Moscow but through influence on intellectuals, on people who write books and articles in newspapers or do features on television. Its very difficult as a reader or viewer to distinguish by ones own judgment what is led by those interests and what is led by rational conclusion. But surely it is not beyond the British parliament to develop a mind of its own on the subject. Presidents Dmitri Medvedev and Barack Obama have taken a significant, if inadequate, step in nuclear disarmament and both say they would like the numbers to fall to zero. But their job, given the size of their forces, is more difficult. In contrast Britain only has three nuclear-armed submarines. To get rid of these, useless in any war imaginable, would have a profound effect on other would-be nuclear powers, Iran first, North Korea second and, third, those other Middle Eastern powers which are considering building a bomb to match Israels large armoury. If they were prepared to sign a Middle East Non-Proliferation Treaty, as they are discussing, Israel could well feel pressured to forsake its nuclear armoury. Khaleej Times