Nuclear Weapons Hide in Pandora’s Box as Scots Seek to Quit U.K.Peter Woodifield
For 44 years, the U.K. has stored its nuclear weapons in western Scotland. It now could be faced with finding the Trident missiles in a foreign country should Scottish nationalists win their bid for independence.
A vote for full sovereignty in the referendum set yesterday for Sept. 18, 2014, will lead to a demand for the removal of the four submarines and dozens of warheads, according to the Scottish National Party. The base at Faslane was picked during the Cold War for its deep water and secure location.
Questions over Scotland so far centered on the economics of going it alone: North Sea oil, the budget deficit, currency and debt. Opponents are now turning to the SNP’s policies on the military, with U.K. Defense Secretary Philip Hammond saying last week Scotland’s plan to remain part of NATO might be in jeopardy if it got rid of the nuclear arsenal. The U.K. government said this month it has made no plans to relocate the weapons.
“There has been a fear in London of even discussing Scotland and related military issues because of the Pandora’s Box complex,” Hew Strachan, the Chichele professor of history of war at Oxford University and a strategic adviser to the armed forces, said in an interview. “There is concern in the Ministry of Defence that public opinion could stop Trident being relocated south of the border.”
Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond, who leads the SNP and the semi-autonomous government in Edinburgh, says the majority of Scots don’t want the “weapons of mass destruction,” which in January he called “an obscenity.”
Last month, he blamed U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron for reneging on a plan in 2011 to increase the overall military presence in Scotland by more than 2,000 posts by 2020. Hammond said that number would now be about 600 personnel.
The SNP reversed its 30-year opposition to membership of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the defense umbrella for the U.S. and most of Europe, last year on condition that all existing nuclear weapons on Scottish soil are removed and it isn’t asked to host any in the future.
“Scotland’s future is as a nation with conventional armed forces,” SNP defense spokesman Angus Robertson said in a telephone interview. “We require the Faslane naval base for the appropriate naval forces required for a maritime northern European nation in the strategic position that Scotland is.”
The SNP would build on public opposition to nuclear weapons on Scottish soil, Robertson said. “The SNP is committed to the speedy safe transfer of Trident from Faslane,” he said.
Polls show more people oppose nuclear weapons than support independence for Scotland, a country of 5.3 million, or about 8.4 percent of the U.K. population.
Two SNP lawmakers in the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh quit in October after the party voted to retain NATO membership. They said they could no longer remain in a party wanting to join a first-strike nuclear alliance. The U.K. is one of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council.
“A real question for proponents of independence is, how would an independent Scotland argue for membership at the same time as opposing nuclear weapons and seeking the removal from its territory of the U.K. deterrent, part of that NATO security umbrella?” Hammond said in a speech in Edinburgh last week.
Sixty percent of Scottish voters are against the policy of Cameron’s Conservatives and the Labour Party to replace the existing Tridents with an upgraded system over the next two decades, according to a poll published on March 13.
The survey, conducted by TNS BRMB, was commissioned by the Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament to look at attitudes toward the weapons in relation to Scottish independence. At the same time, the Feb. 20-28 poll found 52 percent of the 1,001 respondents would vote against the question “Should Scotland be an independent country?” with 33 percent in favour of separation. It didn’t give a margin of error.
Faslane, 25 miles (40 kilometers) west of Glasgow, Scotland’s biggest city, has been home to the nuclear deterrent since 1969, when Polaris submarines replaced bombers as the launch platform. Warheads are stored eight miles away at Coulport in reinforced concrete bunkers.
By 2022, the entire fleet of U.K. submarines, which are all nuclear-powered, will be based there, the government said in October. One of Britain’s three naval bases, Faslane is Scotland’s largest single employment site with 6,700 military and civilian jobs, Andrew Robathan, a U.K. defense minister, told lawmakers in a parliamentary debate on March 7.
That is set to increase by a further 1,500 jobs over the next decade as more submarines move there. All the facilities would be pulled out of Faslane in the event of the British military being forced to relocate Trident, Robathan said.
Implementing that wouldn’t be easy, or quick, should the Scottish politicians win the vote and enter talks on carving up North Sea oil revenue and the national debt, keeping the pound and becoming the newest member of the European Union.
Scottish lawmakers said in a report last year that in the event of independence the Trident missiles could be disarmed in a “matter of days” and removed within months.
Others, including the U.K. government, say it couldn’t and wouldn’t happen that quickly. As a result, there is no contingency plan in place to relocate them.
“We are confident that the people of Scotland will choose to remain part of the U.K. and are not planning for Scottish independence or to move the strategic nuclear deterrent,” the British government said in January in a response to the report.
Nor are U.K. ministers in London planning to discuss alternative bases with NATO allies.
“Operations from any base in the U.S. or France would greatly compromise the independence of the deterrent and there would be significant political and legal obstacles,” the U.K. government said.
The prospect of relocating the submarines to allies such as France or the U.S., two other permanent members of the UN Security Council, was less feasible than originally thought, while having a U.K. sovereign base on Scottish territory wasn’t practical, Ian Davidson, chairman of the U.K. Parliament’s Scottish Affairs committee, told lawmakers on March 7.
Countries have to differentiate between their positions, interests and needs, Charles Crawford, a former U.K. ambassador, said in a telephone interview. Both Scotland and the rest of the U.K. need defense and have common interests, he said.
The Scottish nationalists agree, just not when it comes to nuclear weapons. Salmond has said he wants to keep the British pound and the Bank of England as lender of last resort. The SNP argues that separation would allow Scotland to become a fairer, richer country backed by having 90 percent of the oil revenues, based on a geographical split of resources.
Cameron, who supports having the referendum, said last year that he would consider devolving more power to Scotland in the event of Scottish voters rejecting independence.
The government in Edinburgh currently has power over transport, health, justice and education policy, while the U.K. controls the budget, foreign affairs and defense.
“Scotland would pay a price for kicking Trident out,” Crawford said. “If Scotland gets awkward on Trident I am sure England can find ways of being awkward. Financially and operationally the cost of trying to make independence work in the face of hostility would be horrendous.”