THE RECENT shenanigans between the US and North Korea and concomitant missile rattling has brought the threat of nuclear war to public attention once more. Unlikely as it is that the rhetoric will lead to anything more than puerile insult-trading in the long run, it does prompt some of us to look again at the UK’s own nuclear weaponry on the Clyde.
It’s an assumption of the SNP (but disputed by some polls), that Scotland doesn’t want nuclear weapons there in the first place; it’s the UK that is hanging on to them like grim death (no pun intended). I suspect that most Scots of all political persuasions would be delighted if the four boats and their payloads were to sail down the Clyde for the last time and into the sunset, never to return. But it ain’t going to happen, not anytime soon anyway.
Why? Well, let’s just assume for a minute that we were to vote yes in any future independence referendum – whenever, if ever, that might be – and are looking down the barrel of being an independent state by, say, 2021. I know it’s a big assumption given the state of the polls and current Yes Scotland and SNP difficulties, but bear with me.
The primary reason that, independent Scotland or no, Trident will remain on the Clyde for some time to come is, as articulated by others much more knowledgeable and intelligent than me, because there’s nowhere else for it to go, not in the short to medium term at least. Yes, the boats could probably be accommodated elsewhere at a pinch, maybe in Devonport or possibly Barrow, but there’s no equivalent of the Coulport weapons storage facility anywhere else in the UK, and to build one would take many years and billions of pounds.
I have suggested in the past that the only realistic alternative for the boats and warheads is therefore co-located with the French nuclear deterrent at Ile Longue, near Brest, or on the eastern seaboard of the USA. The MoD, understandably, has ruled out both. So, effectively, the call to remove Trident post independence is a call for the UK to unilaterally disarm, and that just isn’t going to happen. Even if Westminster was willing, which it isn’t, the Americans would have pretty strong views and would bring immense pressure – diplomatic and possibly economic – to persuade both governments in Edinburgh and London to prevent it.
It would appear, therefore, that those who think it might be “hello, independence” on Friday and “goodbye, Trident” on the Saturday are seriously deluding themselves. And it should be noted that the SNP, whilst committed to the removal of nuclear weapons from Scotland, has never put a timeframe on it.
The likeliest scenario on independence, I think, is that negotiations will see Trident remain on the Clyde until it is obsolete and replaced by something else, if indeed it is. The decision on whether the UK will go for a like-for-like replacement system or something else like nuclear warhead cruise missiles has been pushed back and back. The obsolescence of Trident is most likely to be the decision point, which could well be as late as 2035.
Not good news for the Scottish anti nuclear lobby, but there is a positive side to all of this for independenistas. If the rUK wants to keep its seat at the top table as a member of the nuclear club then it desperately needs to keep its Trident fleet on the Clyde. This hands the government of a newly independent Scotland, of whatever political hue it might be (because it does not necessarily immediately follow that it will be SNP), its biggest bargaining chip when it comes to divvying up of UK assets. Want to keep Trident at Faslane? OK, write off Scotland’s share of the National Debt, or pay £Xbn for Y number of years for the lease, or lots of other things I can think of.
The difficult question for Scots politicians who have been so vociferous in their demands for the removal of Trident is, of course, whether they can swallow their pride and respond to the realpolitik of the situation and at the same time maintain their ideological purity. I don’t think they can. But a little humility in politicians wouldn’t be a bad thing, would it? And, as far as I’m aware, changing your mind has always been a perfectly valid part of the intellectual process, has it not?