Ewan Crawford: Trident is Westminster’s fetish, not Holyrood’s
No UK party would consider giving up Britain’s nuclear status but most Scots don’t want it and in 2014 we can do something about it, writes Ewan Crawford
In the early years of Tony Blair’s leadership of the Labour Party, the Conservatives seemed unsure about how best to attack this fresh-faced figure who was desperate to present himself as a break from Labour’s failed past.
At times he was called “Bambi” in an attempt to show that he may have been cuddly and warm but in reality lacked the steel required of political leadership. At other times he was pictured as having secret demon eyes, which betrayed his real agenda to bring in hard-left socialism under the cover of a smiley exterior.
This second line of attack was often illustrated by, in Tory terms, the worst possible political failing: the claim that he had once been a member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and had stood as a candidate for Labour during its Michael Foot unilateral phase.
What more evidence was required of a politician’s unsuitability for office than the fact that he had, at one stage, even contemplated giving up Britain’s nuclear weaponry?
Mr Blair and his successor, Gordon Brown, were both scarred by Labour’s electoral failures of the 1980s. No doubt they remembered clearly the relentless Conservative onslaught on both Mr Foot and Neil Kinnock, which eventually persuaded Mr Kinnock to abandon unilateralism.
That presumably prompted Mr Brown to signal that he wanted to keep and renew Britain’s Trident weapons system during a period when he was particularly keen to prove himself as a worthy successor to his long-standing rival in Number Ten.
In UK political terms, there is little real debate on the sense of keeping a nuclear arsenal. To question it would be a bit like criticising the Queen or TV talent shows: ever-present cherished aspects of British life.
Although the discussion of these weapons is usually accompanied by grave warnings of the unstable nature of global politics and mentions of Iran, the real reason is clearly more to do with Britain’s status and the need for British Prime Ministers to retain an enhanced sense of international importance.
It is not immediately clear, after all, why the current geopolitical climate demands the ability to launch a devastating strike on Moscow on any given day or night of the year.
The ostensible argument – that we need nuclear weapons because others have them or might acquire them – would also appear to logically allow any country to develop its own programme for precisely the same reasons.
Despite this, the announcement by the Defence Secretary, Philip Hammond, that £1 billion is to be spent on the initial stages of, as he put it, updating “our sovereign nuclear capability” attracted little dissent.
There were mild rumblings from some in the Liberal Democrats but the big issue for Nick Clegg’s party seems to be the number and size of nuclear missiles on board the submarines, not the fact of the weapons themselves.
Indeed, when Mr Hammond made a statement to the House of Commons yesterday, the Liberal Democrat Scottish Secretary, Michael Moore, was to be found loyally at his right-hand side.
Here in Scotland, however, the political situation is very different. Most members of the SNP see the removal of nuclear weapons from Faslane as being at the very heart of the case for Scottish independence.
Few speeches given by SNP leaders on major occasions will be complete without reference to Trident, not because of any tactical reasons but because it runs through the party’s DNA. Indeed there is good evidence that hostility to basing nuclear weapons on the Clyde is shared by a majority of people in Scotland.
Until now, of course, there was little that could practically be done about the presence of these weapons on Scottish territory. But Trident is bound to be a major issue during the debate on Scotland’s constitutional future.
For many, the weapons themselves will be seen as immoral regardless of the cost, estimated by some to amount to around £100 billion if the current Trident system is renewed on a like-for-like basis.
For others it will seem ludicrous to spend that amount of money at a time when not only are jobs being lost in the armed services but benefits are being cut for families with disabled children.
In a period of austerity to choose to spend a huge sum on these weapons of mass destruction just seems perverse.
For the SNP, raising Trident as an issue during the referendum campaign does, however, present challenges.
Defence has traditionally been seen as a weak spot in the argument for independence and it was notable that in the House of Commons yesterday all three main Westminster frontbenchers, as well as many backbenchers, attacked the SNP in their contributions.
In some respects, this highlights what at times seems mutual incomprehension between strong supporters and opponents of independence.
For those like me, it is baffling why Scotland is deemed incapable of operating its own defence forces and engaging in co-operation with other countries. But for those such as Mr Hammond it is “laughable” to even envisage such a situation.
I suspect for most people not directly engaged in the political battle, this is a debate they would like to see informed by some facts. It is interesting therefore to note that Scottish tax payers contribute around £3.3 billion to the UK defence budget but that in return defence spending here amounts to just £2 billion.
The key point the Yes campaign is keen to make in the run-up to the referendum is that decisions on things like how much money should be spent on defence in Scotland and what weapons and equipment that money should buy, should be made by the people who live here.
All the available evidence suggests a majority of Scots would choose not to spend that money on nuclear weapons. In 2014 we’ll be able to do something about it.
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Sunday 19 May 2013
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