Pat Kane: Trident takes centre stage in election

Trident submarines, like those at Faslane, carry up to 16 missiles, each with 12 nuclear warheads. Picture: Crown Copyright
Trident submarines, like those at Faslane, carry up to 16 missiles, each with 12 nuclear warheads. Picture: Crown Copyright
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SNP, Green Party and Plaid Cymru want rid of nuclear subs – and could soon hold the balance of power, writes Pat Kane

TO MANY long-term peace activists, I am sure this all comes as a considerable and pleasing surprise, but the non-renewal of the Trident nuclear missile system in 2016 has become a central issue in the coming Westminster General Election.

The immediate cause is the recently agreed position between the leaders of the SNP, the Green Party and Plaid Cymru. In the event of a hung parliament, these three have established some “red-line” conditions of support for Labour, having ruled out any deal with the Conservatives.

And one of those lines would be what the party leaders have variously described as “getting rid of”, “the economic lunacy of renewing”, an “end to the replacement of”, or a “rethink of” Trident.

Like so much about the prospect of a Scots/Welsh/Green bloc playing a role in UK politics after May this language is reigniting the hopes of an English-based centre-left, around a range of issues they have thought dormant for a long time.

But, if the electoral calculus holds, many southern activists (notably among them Kate Hudson, head of CND) are beginning to see the possibilities for a momentous redefinition of the defence priorities of the British state.

However, it’s worth stepping through some of the positions, interests and needs at play in this carefully. And to be clear: I write as someone who largely came into independence politics as an anti-Trident (and certainly anti-UK-militarist) supporter.

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I’m as gutted as any Yesser not to be negotiating the damn things off the soil of a Scottish nation-state, but I am also not going to miss the chance of actually winning, through a rare party-political conjuncture, one of the great moral victories of my life.

So, the toughest part first: the politics-as-usual factor. On one side, as many unionist pundits have started to growl, the Trident red line is a deliberately impossible demand from the leader of the bloc, Nicola Sturgeon. They say that she and her pals know very well, in the florid words of one hack, that “no new British PM could allow themselves to be defenestrated on the world stage by a minority party” [or parties].

On the other side, deep down in the Milibunker, there would seem to be an uncompromising distrust of the ultimate end-point of the SNP (and I guess, by association, Plaid and the Greens). Their raison d’etre is the ending of the existence of the United Kingdom. How could they be believable and constructive partners in a “Westmonster” they only recently wanted to leave behind?

As one peace activist said to me a few days ago, this is a prime example of “MAD” – Mutually Assured Distrust. Bold leadership on both sides might break the logjam.

Is Sturgeon enough of a progressive social-democrat to see the worth in not just securing the Scottish interest, but island-wide reform too? Can Miliband row back from a diehard British unionist position, and see the possibilities for “blaming” a leftward shift in UK politics on the demands of his coalition or supply partners?

As all parties in the process might say: they couldn’t possibly comment. But around Trident it will almost certainly not be enough to think that party politicians, left to themselves in their vape-filled negotiating rooms, will come up with a satisfactory result.

Yet to quote my activist friends again: “How do we demonstrate to them that it’s safe to do this?; that the pack is moving?”

Over the next few months, and right through the early years of a possible “rainbow” government in the UK, there needs to be a Yes-style movement – or at least a flurry, out there in civil society – that provides a new and positive vocabulary for the removal of Trident. And, indeed, for the politics of security and deterrence in general.

In truth, there’s not much more mileage than we’ve already gained from the economic case against Trident (however justified). And we must always remember the febrile nature of public opinion. Looking over the range of recent polls conducted with the British public around nuclear weapons, majorities for and against them seem to be almost entirely dependent on the phrasing of the question asked.

We should also admit how easily support for nuclear deterrence is invoked, in a world of table-thumping Putins and other rogue statesmen.

But part of the civic activist’s job is to show that another world isn’t just possible, but already here. For example, how many voters know that an enormous global “humanitarian” anti-nuclear movement is abroad? According to disarmament organisation Acronym, their aim is not just incremental reduction, but a legal and binding global ban. It draws its strength from over 150 states (mostly outwith the nuclear club) who object to nukes on the grounds of their technical fragility, the human fallibility of their operators, and the social and environmental disasters resulting from any consequent accident.

It’s not only Scots who can feel this viscerally. The Trident missiles transported by trailer truck – at the height of last fortnight’s high winds – were on a round trip from Coulport at Loch Long to Burghfield, Berkshire.

The fall-out from radioactive material respects no constitutional borders – though Scots are right to be angry that they have been at the epicentre of danger for so long.

There are other knotty tangles of ideas and emotions in the public mind to unpick here.

Last year’s Common Weal assessment of Scotland’s defence challenges talked about “deterrence” and “security” – but argued these were best achieved by economic and environmental stability between nations.

Cyber terrorism is a pressing and difficult issue, wrapped up in all manner of anxieties about privacy and free speech. But repurchasing a costly and lumbering missile system from American suppliers hardly seems to address the issue. And remember the Stuxnet virus, sent from the US to disable and disrupt Iran’s nuclear facilities. Imagine if its equivalent hit our creaky, leaky missile system.

It’s only a start to the needed reframing. But we should start to prepare. Some old hopes might be rekindling themselves throughout the island, after these May elections. Our Scottish souls, however indy-minded, should be big enough to help them come to fruition.

Pat Kane is a musician, writer and board member of Common Weal

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