A Short Historiography of ‘British nuclear culture’

For excellent readings and introductions to British nuclear culture, please see; J. Hughes, ‘What is British Nuclear Culture?: Understanding Uranium 235’, The British Journal for the History of Science, 45.04 (December 2012), p. 496. Also see; K. Willis, ‘The Origins of British Nuclear Culture’, Journal of British Studies, 34.1 (January 1995), pp. 59-89 and J. Hogg and C. Laucht, ‘Introduction: British nuclear culture’, The British Journal for the History of Science, 45.04 (December 2012), pp. 479-493.

Also read Dr. J Hoggs new book; British Nuclear Culture: Official and Unofficial Narratives in the twentieth century, (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016).

Nuclear technology has existed in Britain for over sixty years and despite the end of the Cold War and the many debates surrounding the technology, the country still currently retains nearly 220 nuclear warheads, operates 16 functioning nuclear reactors and most recently, renewed its nuclear Trident programme in 2014.[1] As such, the impact of this technology on the British population has entered academic discourse in an attempt to comprehend meanings and implications behind the nuclear threat, however this recent literature has failed to acknowledge the complexities and multifaceted discourses that are unique to the British nuclear experience.[2]

Over the last twenty years, there has been an academic shift in nuclear scholarship, diverting away from traditional military, political or scientific approaches and instead favouring the disciplines of social, cultural and psychoanalytical history.[3] Notable examples of this movement away from ‘top down’ history of the nuclear age include historians such as Paul Boyer (1994), Spencer Weart (1988) and Allen Winkler (1999). These historians have attempted to trace the nuclear age in terms of cultural, social and conscious changes due to the existence of the nuclear bomb subsequently forming the study of ‘nuclear culture’.[4] Thus, rather than present nuclear technology as a phenomenon that altered traditional political, economic and scientific histories, its consequences have begun to be understood through human thought and interaction.


However, Britain is frequently neglected in academic studies on the Cold War, habitually seen as an “extension of America” or as a “back seat” player behind America and the Soviet Union.[5] Britain has played a substantial role in the Cold War since its outbreak up until its thaw in the late 1980s. Since the Second World War, Britain has been profoundly and consistently involved in the origins, development and use of nuclear weapons and power, as well as contributing to their international presence. Despite this, Britain has largely been ignored in academic discourse resulting in a lack of Eurocentric perspectives on the cultural Cold War. Current historiography thus tends to focus on an American perspective, ignoring the other players in the Cold War. While may advances have been made methodology, theory and debates on the impact of nuclear technology on culture, society and consciousness, it has neglected to be translated into a British perspective.

With this in mind, there have been some advancement on the cultural shifts in Britain during the Cold War. Kirk Willis was the first to lead this movement, constructing the foundations to Britain’s own nuclear experience.[6] Other historians were quick to follow, deciphering the impact nuclear technology had on Britain’s culture, including literature, plays, press, and protests.[7] Furthermore, Baylis’ The British Nuclear Experience attempts to locate Britain’s Cold War experience through a lens of ‘beliefs’, ‘culture’ and ‘identity’, mapping the power dynamics between the private and public spheres and between the British government and its citizens.[8]

Steward’s A History of Britain in the 1980s also takes a socio-cultural approach to the Cold War in Britain, attempting to demonstrate the 1980s as a period of “heightened tension”. Furthermore, it abandons the ‘top down’ approach and instead constructs the political and military decisions made ‘at the top’ through a ‘bottom up’ lens, considering the local dynamics and fluctuations. Despite these developments, ‘British nuclear culture’ has remained ‘too general, too passive, too monolithic’ and ‘too simplistic’[9] in its definition, generalising experiences across the whole country rather than accept co-existing, fluid and interactive experiences within the country.[10]  While these advancements in the ‘nuclear cultural history’ of Britain are significant, generalisations on ‘Britain’ still exist, particularly neglecting the existence of local nuclear experiences within the broader dialogue of the country.


“Thatcher on Communist spies in the British government” cartoon by South Wales Echo, 30 November 1981

Some scholarship exists that has attempted to diversify the ‘British Cold War’ and nuclear experience by splitting the country regionally. It is however, extremely limited. Most historiography has imagined ‘Britain’ as a broad, generalised entity but some work has been done on the Cold War in Ireland and Scotland. Most historians who have researched nuclear experiences in Ireland have advocated the role of the nuclear plant in Sellafield, across the Irish Sea, in England. These texts map the growing unrest in Ireland over Sellafield’s continued nuclear waste disposal into the sea, which ultimately washes up on the shores of Ireland.[11] Similarly to ‘Britain’, most of this scholarship refers to ‘Ireland’ as a broader whole rather than de-constructing its different cultures. A single text refers to the history of Ireland and nuclear weapons, enforcing Ireland’s need to remain neutral in the Cold War and reject “England’s nuclear weapons”.[12] Thus, the regions of Wales and Northern Ireland have largely been neglected in the understanding of the British nuclear experience.


Nuclear Britain map, Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament UK, http://www.cnduk.org/get-involved/activist-centre/item/1333-nuclear-britain-map [accessed April 2016]

More developed work has been done on Scotland’s role in the Cold War, a viewpoint that has become more relevant with recent political developments.[13] Most of these texts, such as Uncharted Waters and Trident and International War, discuss the relationship between Scotland and Britain using nuclear weapons as a lens.[14] Uncharted Waters in particular maps the conflict in Scotland over Britain’s nuclear weapons placed on its shores, resulting in national disagreement over the production, use and placement of the country’s nuclear weapons.[15] Scotland and the Cold War advocates this conflict further by portraying the Cold War in Scotland as separate from that in the rest of Britain, describing it as having affected every aspect of Scottish political, economic and social life.[16] However, despite these attempts at localising the nuclear experience, the local is usually detached from the larger ‘grand narrative’ of the British nuclear experience or is completely disregarded.



[1] J. Simpson and J. Nielsen, ‘Governing the bomb: “The United Kingdom”, in H. Born, B. Gill and H. Hanggi (eds.), Governing the Bomb: civilian control and democratic accountability of nuclear weapons (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), pp. 80-82. Also see; D. Holdstock, The British nuclear weapons programme, 1952-2002 (London: Frank Cass, 2003).

[2] J. Hughes, ‘What is British Nuclear Culture?: Understanding Uranium 235’, The British Journal for the History of Science, 45.04 (December 2012), p. 496.

[3] For examples of these shifts see; K. A. Parkhill, N. F. Pidgeon, K. L. Henwood, P. Simmons and D. Venbles, ‘From the familiar to the extraordinary: local residents’ perceptions of risk when living with nuclear power in the UK’, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 35.1 (January 2010), pp. 39-58 for a social perspective.

[4] For notable studies on nuclear culture see; D. Caute, The Dancer Defects: the struggle for cultural supremacy during the Cold War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), R. Hewison, In Anger: Culture in the Cold War (London: Weindenfeld & Nicolson, 1981) or S. C. Zeman and M. A. Amundson, Atomic Culture: How we learned to stop worrying and love the bomb (Boulder: University of Colorado, 2004).

[5] J. Baylis and K. Stoddart, The British Nuclear Experience: The Role of Beliefs, Culture, and Identity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).

[6] K. Willis, ‘The Origins of British Nuclear Culture’, Journal of British Studies, 34.1 (January 1995), pp. 59-89. For further reading on British culture in general; see, K. Robins, British cultural studies: Geography, Nationality and Identity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).

[7] For example, see; D. Cordle, ‘Protect/Protest: British nuclear fiction of the 1980s’, The British Journal for the History of Science, 45.4 (December 2012), pp.653-669, R. Maguire, ‘Never a credible weapon: nuclear culture in British government during the era of the H-bomb’, The British Journal for the History of Science, 45.4 (December 2012), pp. 519-533 and J. Hughes, ‘Deconstructing the bomb: recent perspectives on nuclear history’, The British Journal for the History of Science, 37.4 (December 2004), pp. 455-464 for a more conscience account.

[8] J. Baylis and K. Stoddart, The British Nuclear Experience. Also see; J. Baylis and K. Stoddart, ‘The British Nuclear Experience: The Role of Beliefs, Culture and Status’, Diplomacy and Statecraft, 23 (Summer 2012), pp. 493-516 for a briefer summarisation.

[9] J. Hughes, ‘What is British Nuclear Culture?: Understanding Uranium 235’, The British Journal for the History of Science, 45.04 (December 2012), p. 504.

[10] For example; K. Willis, ‘The Origins of British Nuclear Culture, 1895-1939’, The Journal of British Studies, Vol. 34, No. 1 (January, 1995) p. 60, M. Messmer, ‘Nuclear culture, nuclear criticism’, Minnesota Review, 30/31 (Spring/Fall 1988), pp. 161 and C. Laucht, Elemental Germans, p. 5 have all defined ‘nuclear culture in a number of diverse ways.

[11] See; S. Long and D. Fenton, ‘An Overview of Ireland’s National Radon Policy’, Radiation Protection Dosimetry, 145.1-3 (May 2011), pp. 96-100 and V. McDermott, Going Nuclear: Ireland, Britain and the Campaign to close Sellafield (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2008). Also see; J. Travers, Green & Gold: Ireland a clean energy world leader? (Cork: The Collins Press, 2010).

[12] B. McSweeney (ed.), Ireland and the threat of Nuclear War (Dublin: Dominican Publications, 1985).

[13] This topic is particularly relevant and politically charged today with the discussion on the Scottish referendum of 2014, see; ‘Scotland to hold independence poll in 2014 – Salmond’. BBC News, (10 January 2012) >http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-16478121< [accessed 15th May 2015], ‘Timeline: Scottish independence referendum’, BBC News, (15 October 2012) >http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-scotland-politics-19907675< [accessed 15th May 2015], ‘Scottish independence: Would Scotland be in the EU after a Yes vote?’, BBC News, (29 April 2014) >http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-scotland-politics-26173004< [accessed 15th May 2015].

[14] M. Chalmers and W. Walker, Uncharted Waters and R. Johnson and A. Zelter (eds.), Trident and International Law: Scotland’s Obligations (Glasgow: Bell & Bain Ltd, 2011).

[15] M. Chalmers and W. Walker, Uncharted Waters, pp. 2-4.

[16] B. P. Jamison (ed.), Scotland and the Cold War (Glasgow: Bell & Bain, 2003), pp. 22-23, 29.

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