Two Minutes to Midnight

In the 1980s I was not alone in having recurring nightmares of a nuclear Armageddon which might leave the survivors envying the dead. The Cold War upheld a doctrine of ‘mutually assured destruction’ (MAD) as a fragile protection against the use of weapons which would kill many millions of people. The government issued a booklet, Protect And Survive, giving chilling advice about how to act when the time for nuclear conflict came, and CND responded with ‘Protest And Survive’. The film, When The Wind Blows, based on Raymond Briggs’ book (and featuring music from David Bowie, amongst others) was a moving and powerful satire on the fear we lived with. The women of Greenham Common camped by the RAF base there in protest at its arsenal of nuclear weapons. Some of us voiced the view then, as now, that the terrifying drive toward war was a basic feature of the form of society which exists, and could only be dealt with by changing the basis of society.

That view was almost universally mocked by the pragmatists who prefer piecemeal reform. As a result, here we are, forty years later, and the threats facing humanity are even worse. The Trump administration has withdrawn from the INF (Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces) Treaty signed by Reagan and Gorbachev in 1987 to limit nuclear proliferation, opening the possibility of a new arms race and the prospect of the US preparing for war with China. Against this background, Theresa May’s Defence Secretary, a hideous caricature of a war-monger in the form of former fireplace salesman Gavin Williamson, declared an intention to send warships to frighten China. Unsurprisingly, days later, China indicated it was pulling out of trade talks with Britain. So much for the Brexiteers’ diplomacy in wooing new trading partners to replace Europe.

In February last year, this same Gavin Williamson dined with Lubov Chernukhin, the wife of a former Putin minister, in exchange for £30,000 to Tory funds. Brexit, says Williamson, ‘has brought us to a great moment in our history’, when we must be ready to deploy ‘hard power’ against those who ‘flout international law’. In addition he wants to build two British military bases, one in Asia and the other ‘in the Caribbean’. They are to ‘strengthen our global presence, enhance our lethality and increase our mass’. This little weasel is in the worst tradition of jingoistic speechifying to send innocent millions to their deaths. He wants to ‘enhance our lethality’. What a shameful blot on the face of humanity he is.

Talking of lethality, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists states in its longstanding and highly respected ‘Doomsday Clock’ report for 2019: ‘Humanity now faces two simultaneous existential threats, either of which would be cause for extreme concern and immediate attention. These major threats—nuclear weapons and climate change—were exacerbated this past year by the increased use of information warfare to undermine democracy around the world, amplifying risk from these and other threats and putting the future of civilization in extraordinary danger.’ Since 1947 they have calculated the level of risk of nuclear apocalypse, and set a nominal clock each year, on which midnight represents peak danger, and midday would be safety. They now put this clock at two minutes to midnight, the closest it has ever been. The report is written by a panel of the world’s most senior and accomplished scientists and analysts across all fields, the height of intelligent expertise, and this is their collective conclusion.