Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Letter of last resort

When a new prime minister takes office, a high-ranking civil servant briefs him about the nuclear deterrent, and the PM has to write 4 letters, in his own hand, saying what he would want done should a first strike nuclear attack kill him. The 4 letters are kept in various places, including on Trident. They are destroyed unopened when the PM leaves office. Only one former PM, James Callaghan, ever said what was in his letter: retaliate.

I discovered all this while listening to a radio 4 programme while ironing. The programme included an interview with Denis Healy, who was - I think - Harold Wilson's 'Alternative Minister'. If Harold had been killed by a nuclear bomb, but Denis had survived, authority would have passed first to him, before the letter. Lord Healy, as he is now, said he couldn't have condemned millions of innocent people to death.

I was talking about this with Husband. He agreed with Mr Callaghan: retaliate. I said I couldn't see the point. He said, 'If you don't then evil has won.'

George and I were discussing this in the woods yesterday. I told him all about the programme and the letter and the options and what Husband had said. Then I said, 'But I can't help feeling that, if a nuclear attack is launched, then evil has won already. and anyway, what would happen if we did retaliate? Would the perpetrator then say, "Oh, I didn't expect that. I'd better not fire any more." I don't think so. What do you think, George?'
'I think ... whoa, is that a squirrel?!'

It's difficult to have a serious conversation with George in the woods.