DOWNING Street has been quick to pour cold water on media reports that the Ministry of Defence (MoD) is toying with the notion of declaring the Trident nuclear submarine base in the Firth of Clyde a “sovereign base area”, in the event of Scottish voters opting for independence. Effectively, this would mean Faslane and its nuclear stockpile remaining under British sovereignty, controlled by the MoD itself.
Do not take these denials at face value – the original story was by The Guardian’s highly regarded chief political correspondent, Nicholas Watt. We are witnessing a classic bad cop/good cop routine. First the MoD makes a veiled threat to retain control over Faslane. Then David Cameron rides to the rescue, saying that those ever-so-nice Tories in Downing Street would never think of denying the democratic right of the Scottish people to run their own affairs in their own territory.
Result (or so the MoD spin-meisters hope): Scottish voters are made to feel that opting out of the UK and its nuclear posture (and posturing) is just too difficult to accomplish, while David Cameron and co are made to seem reasonable and accommodating. Put another way, we are being comprehensively manipulated.
This episode lets us explore an otherwise obscure bit of British foreign policy, namely the forcible retention of 98 square miles of the Republic of Cyprus as a military base, following that island’s successful struggle for independence in 1960. Call this Britain’s Guantanamo.
Britain nabbed Cyprus from the Ottoman Turks in 1878. The Brits duly reneged on vague promises that the island would be allowed to join independent Greece. Instead it was turned into a British fortress. Periodically throughout the next century the island’s Greek majority tried to throw out their British rulers. Eventually, after a bloody insurgency in the 1950s that resulted in the pointless deaths of nearly 400 British soldiers, Cyprus won its inevitable independence.
Peeved, the Brits kept 98 square miles on the island’s southern coast to maintain a large air base. RAF Akrotiri has been a home for American U-2 spy planes ever since. It was also used by the US in their bombing attacks on Colonel Gadaffi. This led directly to a terrorist attack on the base (with mortars) in 1986.
Understandably, such unwelcome activity (plus a massive radar and electronics intelligence-gathering presence) has not endeared the British presence to locals. There has been repeated agitation for the so-called Sovereign Base Areas (SBA) to be returned to Cypriot ownership. Last year five protestors were injured during a demonstration there.
Perhaps the biggest paradox of the retention of the Cyprus SBA is that the UK and MoD have lost control of what the Americans do inside the perimeter – we don’t even have “sovereignty” over the Sovereign Base Areas! Recent Wikileaks of US diplomatic cables revealed an ongoing row between the British Government and the White House regarding U-2 operations from Akrotiri over Lebanon and Iraq.
I mention this because London keeps telling Scottish voters that Faslane is vital to the UK’s security. But if Cyprus proves anything, it is that a British sovereign base is likely to be used by the Pentagon for its own purposes. As we all know, the missiles on Britain’s Trident subs are not owned by the UK but leased from the Pentagon. Britain simply does not have an “independent” nuclear deterrent to keep at Faslane.
There are other strange things about the Cyprus SBA.
Who makes the law in these 98 square miles? Answer: the Administrator, who is always the senior British military officer on the island and not a civilian. This is an MoD operation – lock, stock and barrel.
True, the European Convention on Human Rights is supposed to apply to the SBA. But the order applying the ECHR in the Sovereign Base Areas deliberately excludes Article One covering property rights. I distrust the MoD deciding which bits of the ECHR get to apply and which don’t. If the same happens in a potential Faslane SBA, there would be a serious diminution of the human rights.
The removal of private property rights is significant. Some 60 per cent of the Cyprus SBA is private farmland, designed to create a security blanket around the military installations. Presumably the same would apply at Faslane. By excluding property rights from ECHR coverage, the MoD can do anything it wants with the land under its jurisdiction, even if privately owned. Note: the Cyprus SBA also claims control over territorial waters to three miles out, and conceivably can claim access to an exclusive economic zone out to 200 miles, reaching the lucrative Aphrodite Gas Field.
Which brings us to the heart of the Faslane debate: cash. It is highly unlikely the UK would attempt to keep Faslane submarine base and the associated warhead store at Coulport against the wishes of an independent Scottish administration – there are too many international legal issues make that option impractical.
However, London has every intention of using Faslane as a financial bargaining chip in the event of a Yes vote. Westminster would argue Scotland should pay for the relocation of Trident subs. If Scotland was unwilling to pay, the MoD would then demand the UK retain Faslane for a fixed period, say 20 years.
But in creating this latest media frenzy over Faslane, I think the Colonel (and Admiral) Blimps at the MoD have shot themselves in the foot. Faslane is neither as difficult nor as expensive to replace as the MoD claims. The only complicated bit is replacing the Coulport facility where the warheads are loaded. Answer: use the French facilities in Brittany.
Instead, an independent Scottish government should turn the financial argument on its head. If English, Welsh and Northern Ireland voters want Trident, so be it.
But the full value of Scotland’s long financial contribution to this weapon of mass destruction should be deducted from Scotland’s share of the UK national debt.