Monday, 5 August 2013

The Queen's speech for Armageddon: a terrifying reminder


The news that the Queen (above) had a World War III speech text prepared for her is little surprise. We historians always knew that a high level of planning went on for a nuclear exchange in Europe, though by the early 1980s the concept of 'civil defence' had been so hollowed out in the face of overwhelming force (and public spending cuts) that most people would have been cowering under doors they'd ripped off in the middle of their houses. And most of them would have died, either immediately in the blast, or from radiation poisoning in the doleful days and months to come. It's nice to have the confirmation from the National Archives, though it's a very sobering set of documents.

The publication of the text the monarch would have read out does jog the memory more than a little - and remind us of just how close we came, during that 'second Cold War', to complete disaster. In 1983, the year of the Wintex-Cimex exercise of which the Queen's speech was a part, the Soviet Union briefly hunkered down for catastrophe during a series of NATO wargames codenamed 'Able Archer'. Britons were very, very divided in the early 1980s. It was a time of ideological warfare - which was perhaps even more pronounced over the UK's presence in the front line of nuclear 'deterrence' (or otherwise) as it was on questions of trade union power, economic policy and the like. Now it's ever clearer that we might have gone over the edge.

We didn't of course, but it's a chilling reminder of how important it might be to get these weapons off their hair triggers, make them safer than they are now, and to substantially reduce their number - as President Obama in fact proposes. Britain should probably take its own nuclear stance down a few notches - or get rid of them altogether. For who are they aimed at? Who do they deter? What are they for? Those questions are completely muddied, all the time, by talk of 'unexpected outcomes' or 'future dangers' - but there's little sign that other mid-ranking powers, for instance Canada or Australia, are desperate to get their hands on some nukes.

In any case, and away from such present controversies, the Queen's draft speech for Armageddon brings home to everyone how we'd have been asked to sit calmly in our houses and be vapourised. By a leader who'd then try to escape detection on the royal yacht Britannia, hiding among sea lochs in the North of Scotland and trying to gather up the threads of what remained of the United Kingdom. You should note, however, that Whitehall's planners didn't think everyone would take that lying down: Wintex-Cimex ends with Britain in chaos, as hundreds of thousands of people try to flee to the Welsh Hills or overseas.

We skirted around the edge of total destruction. The final crisis might have seen us torn apart, rather than coming together as the Queen was going to urge.

They were not such encouraging plans, really, were they?


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