The barren beige and green hills separating Loch Lomond from the coastline of western Scotland present a postcard scene, though with a deadly twist.
Down from the summits dotted with sheep and deer in the chilly waters of Gare Loch, two 150-meter-long (490-foot) gray submarines lie moored like steel whales. They are the visible part of Britain’s Trident nuclear deterrent at the naval base and arms depot built in the 1960s during the Cold War.
As Scotland prepares to vote on breaking away from the U.K. on Sept. 18, locals say the naval hardware is being ignored by the British government as Prime Minister David Cameron focuses on the economic cost of independence and threats over the currency and pensions. Should the anti-nuclear nationalists overturn an opinion-poll deficit, the arsenal would end up in a new sovereign state that wants to get rid of it.
“It’s as if they’ve put a big poster in front of it saying ‘there’s nothing here,’” said George Collins, 40, a father of five who lives in Garelochhead, the village at the north end of the loch and the nearest to the base. “The U.K. government is in an untenable position. It’s a huge issue.”
British defense chiefs have dismissed the need for plans to move the subs and their cache of missiles from the Faslane base and Coulport arms depot around the loch, at least in public.
Defence Secretary Philip Hammond reiterated on May 8 that relocation would cost “billions of pounds, perhaps tens of billions of pounds” and take at least a decade.
While the Scottish nationalists want to remove Trident by around 2020, Hammond said it would depend on protracted negotiations, and the U.K. government doesn’t expect them to win the referendum anyway.
“The question that has been put to me on many occasions now and the answer will be the same: whether we are preparing a contingency plan to remove our nuclear weapons and submarine base,” he told reporters in London. “And the answer is no, we are not.”
Scotland has a semi-autonomous government in Edinburgh that’s led by the pro-independence Scottish National Party. It has control over health, education, transportation and some social spending. The U.K. is responsible for defense, foreign policy and the broader economy and budget.
“The major strategic interest the U.K. has in Scotland is undoubtedly Faslane,” said John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University in Glasgow. “The nuclear-weapons issue is among the biggest that needs to be dealt with.”
The Scottish government’s blueprint for what would be Europe’s newest independent state calls Trident “an affront to basic decency” and it will oversee the “speediest safe withdrawal” of the weapons from Scotland.
It plans to preserve the strategic and economic importance of the Faslane base by turning it into the headquarters of the new nuclear-free Scottish Navy.
SNP leader Alex Salmond has said the U.K. is bluffing over denying an independent Scotland a formal currency union and is scaremongering over the economy. His party also reckons contingency plans are being made for Faslane.
“I believe planners in the Ministry of Defence are already considering their options,” Angus Robertson, the SNP’s defense spokesman and a U.K. lawmaker, said in a May 7 interview. “I’m certain they will wish to retain 100 percent operational control over Trident, meaning it’s in their interests to work with the Scottish government towards an agreed timescale.”
The Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition in London, along with the opposition Labour Party, is against full independence for Scotland, though all three have said more powers will be ceded under current and future legislation if Scots vote to stay part of the U.K.
Polls show the nationalists are trailing the pro-U.K. Better Together campaign, though the gap has been narrow enough for party leaders to visit Scotland over the past month to drum up support for the 307-year-old union with England and Wales.
One by ICM Research Ltd. in April put the No lead at three percentage points. It widened this month to 46 percent to 34 percent, the 12-point difference matching the most recent survey by TNS, another pollster. The Sunday Times newspaper said on May 18 that Panelbase found the Yes side trailing by seven points.
At bookmaker William Hill Plc, the odds of a Yes vote dropped to 9-4, meaning a successful four-pound bet would win nine pounds plus the return of the stake, from 7-2 earlier this year. The company said last month it expects the referendum to go down to the wire.
Making a contingency plan for housing Trident, such as moving it to Milford Haven in South Wales, would suggest the government was less confident about winning the vote, said Malcolm Chalmers, a research director on U.K. defense policy at the Royal United Services Institute in London.
“Politically it would be dangerous to make those plans now because it would show you expect to lose the referendum,” Chalmers said. Should Scotland vote for independence, then talks would start, as would feasibility studies. “It will be a bargaining chip for Scotland,” he said.
Gare Loch, a glacial valley formed during the Ice Age, was picked for its deep water and secure location. It’s about 30 miles (50 kilometers) up the River Clyde from Glasgow, Scotland’s largest city.
The loch has hosted the nuclear deterrent since the 1960s and is Scotland’s biggest single employment site, with 6,700 people ranging from painting contractors to the Royal Navy commander overseeing the 3,000 naval personnel.
There are four nuclear-powered submarines at Her Majesty’s Naval Base Clyde in Faslane that can carry the warheads stored on the vessels or in concrete bunkers built into the hillside across the loch at the Royal Armaments Depot at Coulport.
Two of the subs are docked next to a hangar as the water from the sea loch gently laps the shore. The 2 kilometer-long complex includes five cranes in varying shades of gray with two frigates stationed down the shoreline. At one end, there are sandstone-colored accommodation blocks.
Two blue and white patrol boats chug along in slow loops up and down the shore next to the black sausage-like barriers that demarcate the water around the submarines.
The base is protected on the land side by a gunmetal-gray perimeter fence with coiled barbed wire, keeping out all unwanted guests save for the odd incursion over the years from the people at the peace camp parked on the opposite side of the road down from the entrance.
The group of anti-nuclear protesters first arrived in the 1980s with their multicolored shacks and caravans. A sign asks passing motorists to “Honk if you hate Trident.”
While Scotland’s anti-nuclear credentials have rarely been in question, the nationalists reversed a previous policy of leaving the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as they prepared to take their independence cause to the electorate.
“If the vote were to go the wrong way in September, it would be very interesting to see what deal they finally cut,” Peter Luff, who served as the U.K. minister for defense equipment from 2010 to 2012, said in an interview. “I could see the Americans saying ‘you’re in NATO, strike a deal with the Brits.’”
An article by the Royal Institute of International Affairs at Chatham House in London published this week said the U.K. might even have to ditch its deterrent and force NATO to rely on the U.S. because it wouldn’t have time and resources to replace the bases in Scotland.
In Garelochhead, it’s often more a question of money than the ethics of nuclear weapons.
The village, which sits at the north end of the loch, is typical of the area. It has a church, a primary school, a pub serving local ales and a smattering of stores and cafes for its population of 2,600. You can hear the seagulls chatter when the wind drops and a lone heron gazes out from the shore.
Everyone knows someone who works at the base, either as part of the military or the army of contractors -- joiners, plumbers, builders and painters -- who earn their living there. The challenge for the pro-independence campaign is to persuade people there won’t be job losses.
“Without the submarines, there’d be no need for all the workers,” said Talia Styles, 36, who has lived in the village for 15 years and whose father worked at the base. She plans to vote No on Sept. 18. “A lot of people don’t want to talk about independence. The whole issue is being overlooked by them.”
At the Anchor Inn, the village pub with bed and breakfast on the main street along the loch, a group of lads with English accents play pool. About 80 percent of the pub’s business comes from contractors at the base during the winter months, with most of them coming from England.
“If the base goes, this place would too,” said John Ferguson, 55, who works part-time at the pub.
Dionne McKernan’s grandfather worked at the base for 42 years, yet she wants to vote for independence so that Scotland can control North Sea oil and attract more tourists. As for Faslane, it’s worth taking the risk, the 20-year-old said.
“They’ll take the nuclear weapons down to England where they belong,” she said. “I don’t want them under our hills.”
George Collins, the father of five, is originally from Port Glasgow on the Clyde and has been in Garelochhead for the past 11 months. The U.K. government needs a plan, he said.
“It’s see no evil, hear no evil,” he said, sitting in the local community center. “The reality is that it’s coming closer. The arguments have been made very clear.”