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Letter of Last Resort

by admin on September 30th, 2015

It’s late.

She writes, or rather attempts to write.

He enters.


Still here?

Burning the midnight oil.

Getting the old legs under the desk.

Not old legs. Of course.

Young legs.

New legs at any rate.

Is there something?


I’m rather in the middle of -

Of course.

Didn’t someone say?


The young man.

He said you were busy.
I thought I’d pop by.
It is your first day.


Just wanted to check everything was all right.


Arrangements, rooms, people.

Arrangements are fine, thank you.

I just wanted to check that you were on top of things.

– sorry your name is – ?


And you are?


Well, John – I think I’m pretty much – of course it’s all new – I mean I’m still getting lost in the corridors and so on – and arrangements are – unfamiliar shall we say – but yes – I think that – yes – essentially I think I’m on top of things so far – so far – anyway.


It can be… discombobulating. Especially on the first day. The realisation that one is … in charge. Holding the reins. It can un-nerve one.

One is fine. One’s nerve is holding.
One feels quite comfortable holding the reins.


So, if there’s nothing else.

As a matter of fact, there is something else,


Just a small matter, it’ll barely take a moment, but nevertheless, it is a key part of arrangements. If you don’t mind?

Can it wait?

Given that I’m here.

How key?

Quite key.

A moment?

A couple of moments.

May I finish this first?

Of course.

It’s just – this is – I wouldn’t mind getting it out of the way – if that’s all right.

She writes, or rather attempts to write.

What is it. The… (a gesture) ?

A letter of condolence.



Would you rather be alone?

It’s fine.

I could go out into the corridor?

It’s fine just –

With the young man.

No -

Yes, I’ll just…



She writes, or rather attempts to write.

Do you need – ?

It’s fine.

She screws up the paper and throws it away.

There is a template.

I don’t want to follow the template.


However difficult it is for me to write – it’s not as difficult as -

Being dead.

Reading it – the mother.

Oh. Yes. I suppose.

It’s my responsibility to be honest, to be human…

Start as you mean to go on.

She writes, or rather attempts to write.

– it’s cheap. It’s…

You reach out a hand – you hold a hand.

Silence is only honest response.

Still – to offer no acknowledgement – no letter – that would be worse.


And there is a template.

She takes a new blank sheet.
She looks at it.

Perhaps a break.

You’re right. I can’t do this now. I’ll come to it later. My head’s – [gesture]
All right – so – what time is it? –

A few minutes to twelve.

– so – John – the small key matter?


What is it?

We need you to write a letter.


The letter of last resort.

The letter of last resort.

It shouldn’t take a moment.

All right.

It’s usually done on the first day.

No problem.

She takes another sheet of blank paper.


Yes Prime Minister?

What is the letter of last resort?


Fill me in.

Well, as you know Prime Minister, at any given moment there is always at least one British Trident submarine on patrol somewhere in the world. Its mission being to and avoid detection and remain hidden. Inside each Trident submarine is a safe, and inside that safe is another safe and inside that safe is an unopened letter. That letter contains your orders in the event that the captain of the submarine believes that the United Kingdom has suffered a devastating and decapitating nuclear attack.

‘Letter’, because it’s a letter and ‘last resort’ because it’s only ever opened in the event that – and this would have to be ascertained after the Captain and Vice Captain had completed a number of very specific protocols – the captain believes that the United Kingdom has been attacked, London has been destroyed, all the members of the government killed, defence installations obliterated and so forth.

Once again – given the execution these long and complex protocols – if the captain determines that the United Kingdom no longer has functioning political or social networks sufficient to give him a legitimate order then…

He opens the safe?

He opens the safe.

And then he opens the other safe.


And then he opens the letter.

That’s correct.

And the letter says.

Well that’s very much up to you Prime Minister.

You may wish to tell him his orders are to fire our nuclear missiles in retaliation or you may wish to tell him his orders are to refrain from retaliating.

The letter is the means by which we ensure that, even in the very last resort, the correct democratically elected hand remains on our nuclear trigger.

Even if the correct democratically elected hand has been vaporised.


And democracy vaporised with it.




That’s not a small matter.

No. But it is a key matter for you to attend to because – in order to preserve secrecy the previous letters were destroyed this morning when your predecessor left office and so – at the moment – as a nation – were anything untoward to happen – not that we expect it to happen of course but if it it were to happen – in the absence of a letter – we would be – so to speak – ‘caught with our pants down.’

Is there a template?


How does the captain of the submarine know who he’s retaliating against?

Responsibility for a massive decapitating nuclear strike is not something that it would be easy to hide.


Our captains are kept up to date with the latest geo political movements. They constantly monitor radio and satellite traffic – world broadcasting services and so on. There may even be, in the case of such a massive attack, a direct admission of responsibility on the part of the aggressor nation.

I see.

How does he know that there’s nobody left?

He follows the protocols.



What signs?

Not so much signs as the absence of signs.


No signal traffic on UK defence frequencies. No announcements by UK government or royal officials. The absence of Radio four.

The absence of Radio Four?


The absence of Radio Four? Really?

Amongst other things.

[she sings the theme tune of the Archers]

Ha ha.

Because without the Archers there is no civilisation.

In fact it’s only one of a number of protocols and if you think about it – it makes a certain amount of sense given that it if the BBC were in any way able to broadcast someone would be doing so …so the implication of it’s absence is relatively severe.


Really Prime Minister we just need you to write … From The PM… etc etc… to Commander HMS etc etc… Given the execution of protocol x and subject to validation procedure y by your Vice Commander your orders are to either a) retaliate in a like for like manner… or b) not retaliate or c) act on your own discretion or d) some other option.

There’s another option?

You may wish neither to retaliate nor withhold retaliation but instead ask the commander to put the submarine at the disposal of Australia.


Or New Zealand.

Because they are part of The Commonwealth?


Also they might be left.

Look, John – the thing is – this is all very well but it’s – I don’t – I mean it’s all so hypothetical –

I don’t catch your meaning, Prime Minister?

There isn’t going to be a devastating nuclear attack on Britain. London isn’t going to be wiped out by bombs from Russia or whoever… I don’t know.


All right, Iran but the fact is the political conditions are just – it’s impossible in the modern world. Maybe during the cold war but nowadays it’s…who would do it? Who would actually launch the missiles? Which leader of which country thinks an attack like that on a country like this would have any kind of… would have any meaning?


I could write a nursery rhyme on this piece of paper, John, it’s never going to be read. The events that require it to be opened are quite simply impossible. They’re never going to happen.

Except of course that they have happened.


The events have happened.

No they haven’t.

They have.

London has not been attacked, John.

With respect Prime Minister London has been destroyed.

Look – London – trees – sky – bird – cat – night.

The only circumstances in which this letter will be read are those in which there are no longer trees, or birds or cats… or London or you. As you write this letter you must assume a world not as it is now but a world as it exists in the circumstances of the letter’s reading. As soon as you put pen to paper, Prime Minister, London ceases to exist.

What did Fuckface write?

I’m sorry?

Monsieur Coiffeur?

I’m terribly sorry I don’t -

My predecessor.

Oh. Him. I can’t say.


I can’t.



A moment.
She writes.

Dear Commander – what name?

Vanguard, Victorious, Vigilant, Vengeance

I want to use a name.

A name?

Jim, Stan, Jack, Reg.

The Protocol is to use the titular form eg. Dear Commander HMS Vengeance.

Britain has been destroyed. John. The Queen is dead. London is ashes. This man’s family are dead. Everything he has ever loved is gone. I want to use his name.

Peter, David, Hugh, John.

Dear Peter…
Dear Peter…
Where is he reading this?

In his cabin?


Under the sea.

Under the sea where – I’m just trying to picture it.

His location will be secret.


Nobody know where they patrol.

I bet Russian intelligence has a fair idea.

In fact not.



Don’t they have sonar?

Once every three months a trident submarine slides out of the Firth of Clyde and into the North Atlantic where they hide, usually under the polar ice, or in deep mid ocean trenches, or in the shadow of undersea mountain ranges… they may receive communication but they send no communication out. Nuclear engines mean they move silently. Their only purpose, their entire mission whilst on patrol is to remain undiscovered so that in the event of a devastating and decapitating nuclear attack the United Kingdom still has the capacity to retaliate.

Unless of course your orders are that he not retaliate.

Look, no! I’m not going to do this John. ’m not going to write any letter. The truth is, I’m pretty ambivalent about the whole nuclear weapons thing anyway. It may be a fact of government but – no – Giving orders in advance is – no.



That’s not something about which I was advised.

It’s not something I like ti advertise but it’s true. I was at Greenham John, and Faslane. Not as an actual protestor. As a – fellow traveller. I went with people. I was beside people. In the end I found it all too… marginal – somehow we’re stuck with these things – these – but come on, ideally we’d be rid of them wouldn’t we… first chance we got. Nobody likes nuclear weapons. Do they?

I do.

I like nuclear weapons very much.

You like the shape. The penis shape.

It’s not their form I like. It’s their concept.

You’re military. The military always like weapons.

In fact, on the whole the military are rather against Nuclear weapons.

Are they?

Military people like fighting wars and nuclear weapons are useless for fighting wars.

Now I’m confused.

Nuclear weapons aren’t intended to fight wars Prime Minister. They’re intended to NOT to fight wars. Their destruction is abstract and conceptual. They are truly philosophical weapons. The military, on the other hand, like weapons to be concrete and visceral.

Not you though.


Even though you’re military.

I’m not military, Prime Minister, I’m arrangements.

And arrangements likes its weapons philosophical?

The knife stabs, a gun fires, a pilot clicks a button and there is a vanishing puff of pixels and smoke but if the commander of a submarine launches a nuclear missile strike he instigates the total destruction of an entire society, millions of people die, vast tracts of land are poisoned forever – the death he brings isn’t prosaic or literal it’s philosophical. It’s death as we would experience it ourselves – all encompassing, personal, and yet at the same time utterly unimaginable.

And that’s good?

It’s the foundation of deterrence. In all the years of their existence, no nuclear armed nation has ever attacked another nuclear armed nation.

Until now.

I don’t understand?

Birds – trees – cats – London

Oh… I see. Yes. No nuclear armed nation has ever attacked another nuclear armed nation… until now.

I’m dead?


The captain is somewhere?


We don’t know where?


In a cabin.


At his desk? Does he have a desk?


Not dis-similar to this desk?


Let’s role play.

Role play?

You be the captain, I’ll be me.


Just – imagine…

All right.

You open the safe and then you open the other safe and then… you see me and you say -

Madam, I have reason to believe there has been a completely devastating nuclear first strike on the United Kingdom. I am no longer receiving communication from any identifiable British sources . Monitoring of radio frequencies from other countries suggest that London has been destroyed along with Glasgow and therefore the submarine bases on The Clyde. I have gone through every one of the protocols designed to confirm the extent of situation and each protocol has been passed. What are your orders?

What’s your name, Captain?

My name isn’t important Madam.

What is it?


Hello John.

Hello Madam.

John, Have you tried radio 4?

I have tried radio 4.


White noise, madam.

Who did it, John?




Where are your missiles targeted?



Beijing is the correct term.

I think we can call it what we fucking like after what those fuckers have done to us.

Yes madam.

Is retaliation technically feasible?

We have two missiles on board with nuclear warheads. Targeting co-ordinates are programmed into the computer. If I turn the launchkey we will hit Beijing sorry Peking within twenty five minutes.

The turn of a key.

Two keys, I operate the launch jointly with my second in command.

What’s his name?

It really doesn’t matter madam.

What’s his name?


Do your crew know about this?

Not yet.

Who knows about it?

Only myself and – Kevin.

How many people will die?


How many will die?

Probably something in the region of 10 – 15 million people, madam.

What went wrong.

I don’t know madam.



They always seem so rational.

They must have believed an attack was in their interest.

Didn’t they know we’d retaliate?

They must have calculated that we wouldn’t.

Did we indicate we wouldn’t retaliate?

Quite the opposite, Madam. We forcefully indicated that we would.

But they didn’t believe us.



I’m not sure.

Not sure?

There is a possibility.

Which is.

It’s possible that they believed it was in their interests to attack and that, despite our indication, after the attack we wouldn’t retaliate –

Of course we’re going to retaliate, why wouldn’t we retaliate?

Because to retaliate would be irrational.

What’s the point. Britain is already functionally destroyed. There is no state to speak of. Most of our people are dead. Whatever remains of our society is defeated.

I’m sorry but –

There may be an emotional argument in favour of a revenge attack but in all likelihood the Chinese cabinet ministers who ordered the attack will have long ago repaired to a well defended nuclear bunker somewhere in remote Mongolia. Any retaliation we enact will be nothing less than the wholesale murder of fifteen million civilians and all to no political or military purpose.

They started it.

It may also be illegal. Under international law it’s likely to be construed that the captain of the ship – me – who fires the retaliatory weapons could be committing a war crime.

That’s a very fine argument isn’t it?

It’s actually a very central argument. I’m not sure I would be able to obey an order that effectively induced me to commit a war crime.

Your country is destroyed. All the people you love are dead.

I realise it’s an emotional scenario.

It’s emotional fucking scenario all right. I don’t see how there can possibly be a problem with international law. Surely – any putative court at any future time will understand that retaliation in the form of wiping out Pe –fucking – king is legitimate use of counter force to their massive provocation.

Yes, but you’re not giving the orders in the future Madam, you’re giving the orders now.


When you write the letter you’re not in the hear of battle. You are in the cool of the present moment. And in that moment you are ordering the murder of twenty million innocent civilians in the full knowledge that it’s an act with no military or political purpose. If and when you write that order, therefore, you are consciously committing a war crime.

I’m vapour. John. What are you going to do? Sue me?

You maybe dead but I am alive.

Alive in a tub under the sea – a tin tub and a bomb, that’s all that’s left of Britain John, the United Kingdom, The British Empire, Albion – all that’s left of all we ever were and have been is you and Kevin and some bewildered seamen in a can.

The moral point remains, madam.

I saw one once. We were on a hillside above Loch Long. My boyfriend at the time was a protestor I went up for a weekend to visit him. We were sitting round a campfire. My bum wet with morning dew. Bacon frying. The forest orange and brown, a whisper of mist. The loch still and black and then suddenly I saw it – Trident – Cutting through the water silent and black, like time passing. Everyone started banging pots and pans. Booing. Yelling. My boyfriend shouted ‘murdering cunts!’ ‘mudering cunts!’. But I felt … warm. I was surprised. To see them, the sailors on the deck, the captain on the tower. I felt warmly towards them – them? – it? I didn’t say anything, of course. I hated nuclear weapons. Obviously. But there was an ambivalence, the sailors on the deck, the movement through the water, the seriousness of it. I felt as if I was watching my father riding home on a black horse.

The boyfriend – he is – was he – vetted?

Long gone.

John is there really no way you can contact someone in authority? Can’t I order you to call, I don’t know, the UN?

Any form of radio contact would give away our position and render us open to being sunk which would therefore remove the potentiality of the weapon.

Right. So I can’t order retaliation because that would be a war crime. So I must order you not to retaliate.

She takes a blank sheet of paper.

Dear John… Dear Kevin… if you’re reading this then I can assume there has been the most terrible fuck up. I’m truly sorry. However it came about you can be sure it was not intended. Please don’t to retaliate. Whatever dignity there is left in the British state we muster at this moment and we refuse to stoop to their level and commit a war crime. My orders are that you sail to Australia, if it still exists, and put yourself at the disposal of the Australian navy… accept the orders of their Government. I hope that in some way you and your crew manage to build a life of some worth out of the horror in which you find yourself at this moment. God Bless you all.

She signs.

Of course madam.

She puts the letter in an envelope.

Thank you John.
That was helpful.

You’re welcome madam.

She offers him the letter.

Prime Minister –


Could I offer some contrary advice?


Some advice against ordering non retaliation.

Are you Captain John now or Arrangements John?

Arrangements John.

Arrangements John, It’s late.

I know but – as I say – this really is key.

All right.

Prime Minister , deterrence can really only work in principle if a potential aggressor nation has complete and utter certainty that in the event of a devastating decapitating first strike they will be retaliated against.

But – you just – you – we

If you don’t commit to retaliation then the United Kingdom will always be vulnerable to the threat of an aggressive decapitating strike.

To retaliate is irrational.

That’s as maybe but without the irrational threat of retaliation there is no point in having nuclear weapons at all.


Yes, Madam.

Are you saying that the entire edifice of Britain’s nuclear weapons establishment, the submarines, the sailors, the missiles, the bases, the whole multi billion pound project… are you saying that in the end it’s all rests on what I write on this piece paper now –

Yes, Madam.

To write ‘retaliate’ is monstrous and irrational. To write ‘don’t retaliate’ renders the whole nuclear project valueless.

Yes, Madam.

So these words – these words which I have to conjure now in the face of unimaginable horror – a horror which nonetheless I have had to imagine – and given that these words now exist – we must assume that somehow in some way this unimaginably horrible world has come into being – into this abyss – this– John – into this darkness that we are spared but which someone will have to confront in reality – into this darkness these words must go in that darkness they must say – ‘don’t retaliate’ but the only logic I can use to write the words comes from in the actual world in which I’m writing – the world of light – and in that world the only words I can write are ‘do retaliate.’

Yes Madam.

Which brings me to another paradox. If these words exist then I’m dead, and not just me but all those who would represent me. So these words, therefore, that I must conjure tonight in the form of orders, orders written, stamped, folded amongst the full pomp of power of state of ‘arrangements’ are in fact nothing but marks on a page that, on the moment of opening, will mean absolutely nothing… nothing. Why? Because who is going to enforce them? Who will make John obey my orders? Kevin? No – these impossible words that I write as orders are in fact not orders but a request – not even a request – a thought – barely even a though… a prayer? A spell? – an incantation written by a little girl, spat on, sung over burned to ash then hidden in a locket and given to a boy before he goes to sea – I speak you a spell – spoke it – will speak it – and when you open the locket’s the spell is broken.

And so whatever dark magic it is that gives these words their power now will in the moment of opening be reversed and each syllable, each phoneme smeared across the paper will carry reverse magic – a dark anti – animation the opposite of life, the opposite of breath – death – the suck of death.


Logically, I have to write ‘retaliate’.


She takes a blank sheet of paper.

Dear John, there’s been a fuck up – please retaliate.


She signs the paper.
She puts it in an envelope.
She gives it to him.


Yes John.

It isn’t enough just to write it.

You have to mean it.


If you don’t mean it, your ambivalence will reveal itself in your behaviour. It will appear to our enemies that the letter of last resord does not order post strike retaliation.

But it does. I just wrote it.

What you actually write doesn’t matter. All that matters is what the world thinks you’ve written.

I could show them the letter.

The moment you show the world the letter you’ll be potentially liable for prosecution for inciting a war crime.

What can I do then?

There really is only one rational thing you can do.

What’s that?

Be irrational.

John it’s late – I – what?

The rational thing for you to do Prime Minister, in all matters of world affairs, is to behave in a wayward and dangerous manner.

You can’t be serious.

I’m deadly serious. In order to keep the value of a nationas Nuclear deterrent the rest of the world has to believe that the leadership of that nation is basically – irrational – on a knife edge – ready to go off at any moment – likely to do berserk things – they have to look at that nation and believe that its premier is driven by enough psychopathy that they would be willing to see twenty million innocent civilians die for no other reason than sheer revenge.


It’s called the ‘crazy’ strategy.

The crazy strategy.

It’s a strategy which Israel pioneered. Iran has adopted it. America pursues it quite successfully.

What about us?

We on the other hand adopt a different strategy.

Oh really?

Our strategy is rather more subtle.

What is it?

The letter of last resort.

John – I don’t understand – I can’t –

Try Prime Minister,

my head’s full –

Twenty million human lives depend on this.

A moment.

It’s rational to behave irrationally.


Therefore it’s irrational to behave rationally.


Therefore we prove our irrationality by behaving rationally.


The more rationally we behave the more irrational we appear to be.


So… We must pursue rationality to utterly insane levels.


We pursue rationality until it creates a logical paradox so extreme that it breaks through the simple binary opposition of rational and irrational and it becomes something else – something beyond – something transcendent.

You’ve got it!

The letter of last resort.

The letter of last resort.

A letter which has to exist but which can’t exist, a matter in which in which the only rationally way to behave is to be irrational, writing words whose purpose is never to be read… absurd.

Isn’t it!

Like an absurd drama.


It’s like an episode of Yes Prime Minister.

Ha ha! Yes Prime minister.

In which you’re a sort of Satanic Sir Humphrey… and I am a sort of contemporary female Jim Hacker.

Yes! That is a funny thought.

An absurd scene in which You and I are caught up in one of the odd conundrums of British political beaurocracy – mysterious and maddening but oddly endearing.



Yes Pirandello.

A spiralling pirouette of logic that leads up and up into pure ether…

The Daily Mail.


But of course we aren’t in a play by Pirandello.


This scene is ‘like’ an absurdist drama but it’s not actually an absurdist drama.


Because I am the Prime Minister.


And you’re John.


Except, of course I’m not the Prime Minister?


Because I’m dead


And so are you.


A moment.

Prime Minister? Are you all right?

I’m can’t help thinking of him, John, him and Kevin, under the sea, hanging in the shadow of a mountain searching the frequencies – no Archers – no Today Program – no Gardeners Question Time – no Cricket – No Woman’s Hour – no Feedback – no thought For The Day – No voices at all – only the absence of things – he’s searching but there’s nothing there – only the empty wavebands calling out over the sea.

Prime Minister.
It is late.
We don’t want to be caught with our pants down, so to speak.


Would you mind writing the letter now.

She takes a blank sheet of paper.

She writes, or rather attempts to write.

He waits.