Allan Massie: Trident is a Catch-22 situation

There is no apparent need for weapons like Trident but the threat of Mutual Assured Destruction kept the Cold War from heating up. Picture: Getty
There is no apparent need for weapons like Trident but the threat of Mutual Assured Destruction kept the Cold War from heating up. Picture: Getty
Have your say

A more flexible attitude to nuclear would reassure Nato and others that the SNP takes defence seriously, writes Allan Massie

Warnings about the consequences of a Yes vote for the defence of these islands come thick and fast. The Nationalists’ response is, essentially: “Why should we care? It’s no great matter if what’s left of the UK is weakened.” The SNP position is: “We don’t like Trident, and we want the submarines out of Scotland.” It’s fair to say that plenty of supporters of other parties, including some who may vote No in September, are equally opposed to nuclear weapons and their presence here.

They are unlikely to be moved by the letter addressed to Mr Salmond and signed by an assortment of very distinguished admirals, air marshals and generals, who said that “the United States and France, as two of the P3 nuclear powers, could be expected to be particularly concerned at the risk that an independent Scotland was effectively pushing a unilateral nuclear disarmament agenda that they and Nato have consistently opposed. They would also view with alarm the white paper’s suggestion of a constitutional ban on nuclear weapons in Scotland – a move that would be unacceptable for Nato allies.”

If this last sentence sounds like a scarcely veiled threat, one should remember that the SNP intends, for the time being anyway, that an independent Scotland would be a member of the Nato alliance.

The question of defence hasn’t played a big part in the argument about independence. Nuclear weapons may be widely unpopular and their value queried. There is a sense or belief they are useless. Yet the SNP’s commitment to getting rid of them is also questionable. Like so much outlined or promised in the white paper, it smacks of a mindset focused only on the immediate visible or foreseeable future.

Nuclear weapons – let’s say Trident for short – offer an example of a geopolitical Catch-22. For anyone who hasn’t read Joseph Heller’s novel, or who has read it but forgotten, the original Catch-22 took this form: A pilot or member of a bomber’s crew could be excused from flying further missions only if he was mad, but if he applied to be stood down he was evidently sane. Therefore his request must be refused.

The Trident Catch-22 is similar: Trident is valuable if its weapons are never fired; if they are fired, it is a failure. Weapons of mass destruction make sense only if they are never used. This may sound crazy, especially when you consider their cost. Nevertheless, Trident and its predecessor Polaris may be judged as worthwhile simply because they have never been employed. The Cold War never became hot because the doctrine of MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction) prevailed.

The Cold War ended a long time ago now, a quarter of a century indeed. There is no comparable enemy today. Europe is no longer divided into two armed camps. So, it may be argued, MAD is obsolete. Nobody is threatening us with nuclear weapons, so we don’t need our own ones.

The trouble with this argument is that it assumes that things will remain the way they are. Even more than the past, the future is another country where they do things differently. We can never see far ahead, certainly not far enough. Back in the 1920s, when Winston Churchill was Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Treasury laid down a ten year-rule for defence spending; its assumption was that there would be no war in the next ten years, an assumption to be updated annually. Ten years may be a longish time to live through, but only a very short one in history, as the Treasury (and the rest of us) discovered in 1939. More recently, who in 1979 foresaw that the Berlin Wall would come down in 1989, and the Soviet Union collapse and the Cold War end immediately afterwards?

Today, with nuclear proliferation at least temporarily halted, it may seem clear that there is nobody threatening these islands, or indeed western Europe, and therefore, with nobody to deter, there is no need of a deterrent. So we can safely get rid of Trident, not because it will never be used, but because its deterrent purpose is obsolete. It’s a relic of the Cold War and no more now than a status symbol we could happily do without.

It may well be that George Robertson, ex-UK defence minister and former Nato secretary-general, went a bit over the top when he warned that the consequences of Scottish independence and the removal of Trident from the Clyde would be “cataclysmic”. He might certainly have used more restrained language. But of course he may be right. The deterrent, unnecessary today, may be necessary in the future.

Of course there are many in Scotland who don’t care to think about such things. There are many for whom the idea of an independent Scotland detached from Big Power politics and able to concentrate on really important things like the provision of childcare for working mothers is deeply attractive. There are many who rather like the idea of what remains of the UK (that is, essentially England) being stripped of its geopolitical pretensions. All this is understandable. One may even have some sympathy. “Stop the world, I want to get off” is an appealing cry.

Nevertheless one must ask if it is a suitable attitude for a serious politician like Alex Salmond to take. One might even wonder if any politician who appears to be indifferent to questions of defence is entitled to be thought serious. It might be more sensible for the First Minister to say something like this: “We see no present threat to the security of these islands; yet we can’t read the future, and we recognise that the world may again become a more dangerous place in which possession of a nuclear deterrent may help preserve the peace, as it did in the Cold War. Consequently, an independent Scotland, which will be a member of the Nato alliance, will act responsibly and agree terms which will enable the Royal Navy to keep its Trident submarines, and any successor weapons, in the Clyde.”

Who knows? There might even be votes in such an acknowledgement of ignorance of the future; and, should there be a majority for independence, taking up this position with regard to Nato and nuclear weapons would surely make negotiations as to the terms of separation and the break-up of the UK a good deal easier.