Speechification’s superb service to the nation has delivered The Human Button into my podcast tracking devicicule recently. It’s broadly speaking a nutritious slice of Reithian radio and very listenable, although just as establishment as milord would have loved to hear. The presenter Peter Hennessy is professor of contemporary British history at Queen Mary, University of London, so he clearly knows the subject matter. Even then, his pedantic enunciation of the singular “graffito” is rather spoiled by his repeated use of the Americanism “alternate” rather than the rather more precise British “alternative”, especially in sentences where, because of their emphasis on the precision of the procedure, the usage brings you up short.
The premise—to present to the listener the human face of nuclear deterrence—is spoiled in turn by mentioning of Faslane quite early on, the name of which I quickly completed in my mind with “365”. Now, I’d have considered coverage of the year-long peace camp at the Trident base would be both a presentation of the human face of the issue of nuclear deterrence, and would also give airtime to an interesting and unusually neglected sub-topic in the discussion of the “defence” of the nation. Indeed, I’m probably a special case in this regard, because the low-key coverage of the protest at Faslane means that most people have to know someone who was arrested there, in order to even be aware that it happened. Still, if the listener ever begins to think sympathetically of peace camps and the growing ranks of the anti-nuclear, he’s unlikely to take the disconnected, hidebound and occasionally pompous interviewees—prime ministers excluded, which I wouldn’t have expected—particularly seriously.
Most sinister are the attitudes of those closest to the trigger: a literal trigger, on an empty Colt .45 wired to the launch controls, which is an odd injection of the Wild West into a control room. The captain is, as you’d expect, as humourless as a customs officer on duty, but what was odder was the attitude of the otherwise matey naval underlings. They’d be talking quite cheerily about the issue, but then as soon as any moral argument, or even the argument of the pointlessness of nuclear deterrence as a tactic, was raised, the temperature in the room would fall in sympathy, and suddenly it was like someone else was speaking with their voice.
All in all, you got the feeling that they’ve had a certain something extracted from their personality, as part of the preparation by the armed forces of a failsafe meat-based hierarchy to complement the silicon- and copper-based firing mechanisms in the missiles. Those sailors were very much like weapons with the explosive charges replaced by cold, quiet, error-free electronic circuits. So: as suited as an empty pistol for the launching of Trident, but hardly a very human button.