One of the very first tasks that befalls a Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, is the writing of four handwritten letters which are to be sealed, sent to the captains of the four nuclear capable submarines of the Royal Navy; which are to be opened and acted upon in the event that an enemy nuclear strike has destroyed the British government, the Prime Minister and a nominated "second person" (usually the Deputy PM). As the letter is still in existence after the United Kingdom would have itself presumably suffered a catastrophic existence failure, then it could very well be the last official act of government.
The four letters are sealed and sent to the four nuclear capable submarines and remain unopened until the worst should happen. If there is a change of Prime Minister, these letters are destroyed but still unopened; so the details contained in the letters, will remain unknown to everyone except for the Prime Minister.
I had a go at writing one of these letters... assuming that I somehow became the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and the task befell me. This is that letter:
If you are reading this letter, then the gravity of the situation is already self-apparent. Her Majesty's Government of Great Britain has been destroyed; along with the necessary chain of command which would be necessary to instruct you further.
If you are the Captain of the "Port" crew - you are instructed to take your vessel to the point 54.0000°N and 20.0000°W.
If you are the Captain of the "Starboard" crew - you are instructed to take your vessel to the point 65.0000°N and 6.0000°W.
Once you had reached your designated point, you are instructed to wait until 1830 hours GMT on the next Friday, when you will then listen to Friday Night Comedy and then The Archers on BBC Radio 4 on Long Wave.
Without The Archers there is no civilisation. Without Friday night comedy, there is no joy either.
(You will then read this letter in the presence of all the crew at 1730 GMT).
If in the event there is no Friday Night Comedy or The Archers on BBC Radio 4, then you must evacuate this vessel to the port of Halifax, Nova Scotia, when this vessel must present itself to the Royal Canadian Navy and await instructions from them.
If there is no-one at the port of Halifax who will receive you, then you must evacuate this vessel to the port of Sydney, New South Wales, when this vessel must present itself to the Royal Australian Navy and await instructions from them.
If there is no-one at the port of Sydney who will receive you, then you must evacuate this vessel to the port of San Diego, California, when this vessel must present itself to the United States Navy and await instructions from them.
If it can be properly ascertained in the period between opening this letter and 1830 hours GMT on the next Friday that a state of nuclear war certainly exists, this vessel is free to engage with all enemies but only so far as to defend itself. The vessel must not retaliate with nuclear weapons.
If it can be properly ascertained in the period between opening this letter and 1830 hours GMT on the next Friday that a state of nuclear war certainly does not exist, this vessel is free to engage with all enemies but only so far as to defend itself. The vessel must not retaliate with nuclear weapons.
Above all, this vessel is to maintain standards of professionalism and order. Government doesn't stop merely because the country has been destroyed. Annihilation is bad enough. We do not need anarchy to make it even worse.
We thank you for your continuing endurance.
AT Rollason, Prime Minister
Si vis pacem, para bellum
The nations, not so blest as thee,
Must, in their turns, to tyrants fall;
While thou shalt flourish great and free,
The dread and envy of them all.
Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:
Britons never will be slaves!
I have a few things to say about this:
1. There is an assumption that the four nuclear submarines are within radio transmission range of the UK. I also thought about the fact that sending to a fairly remote point somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic would mean that they are well and truly out of the way.
2. The fact that Radio 4 would be out and might come back online, is something of a safeguard. If this was read on a Friday and they heard nothing, then the amount of lead time to evacuate to Canada might only be a few hours but if it was opened on a Saturday, they'd be forced to listen and determine if in fact a nuclear war had taken place for almost a whole week.
3. By sending them to Canada, Australia and then the United States, they will have swept a very large portion of the globe. This should give them adequate time to assess the situation.
4. As a nuclear submarine as a weapon of war is itself a weapon of last resort and the thing which it supposedly is trying to defend has already been destroyed, then I see very little point in retaliating with nuclear weapons, merely as an act of revenge. Usually the point of making maneuvers and attacking an enemy in a war is to gain some sort of advantage; what is the point when there us literally nothing left to be gained?
What's interesting is that the system has been tested this century and purely by mistake:
THE captains of Britain’s nuclear submarines had a wake up call today - when the BBC mysteriously went off air for 15 minutes. Secret orders to captains say orders to launch a strike are to be opened and acted upon only if the submarine cannot tune in to Radio 4’s Today programme for a given number of days.
THE captains of Britain’s nuclear submarines had a bit of a wake up call today - when the BBC mysteriously went off air for 15 minutes.
The Today programme, which is popular with government ministers, went silent just before the 8 o’clock news because of a fire alarm at BBC HQ.
- Manchester Evening News, 12th August 2004
The thing is that, the Letters of Last Resort are such that not one of them (thankfully) has ever been opened. If you were Prime Minister, you could just as easily draw pictures or write out the words to recipe and no-one would be any the wiser; by the time that they actually did read the letter, you wouldn't live to regret it anyway. Maybe you could even write "So long and thanks for all the fish".
As an exercise, writing Letters of Last Resort is an interesting prospect because it asks you think about a point in time beyond the end. I imagine that it would be a terrible prospect for a Prime Minister to consider and I would suspect that it would be quite a daunting task to face on day one in the new job.