Nuclear weapons in Scotland: Why disarmament is not top of Scotland's priority list – John McLellan

With raging wildfires, flash flooding which would engulf the Ark and lush forests apparently about to turn into dustbowls, not to mention the increasingly ugly fight over gender self-identification, nuclear disarmament seems so 1980s.

Anti-nuclear campaigners protest outside the Faslane nuclear submarine base (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

But as Taliban militias tote their AK47s on every street corner from Kabul to Kandahar, the future of the nuclear-armed Nato alliance is more uncertain now than at any time in its 72-year history as the other 29 members try to work out the implications of US President Joe Biden’s unilateral withdrawal from Afghanistan.

And with hardline environmental nationalism becoming the new established religion in Scotland as the Green Party takes ministerial office, and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon uses the deal to ratchet up pressure for a second independence referendum, the SNP’s defence spokesman has reminded supporters that however many road projects are blocked or gas boilers ripped out, the one true faith which binds them is nuclear disarmament.

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Despite Scottish independence looking increasingly unlikely ─ the most recent poll, by consultants Redfield & Wilton last month, put confirmed support for Yes at 44 per cent ─ on Thursday SNP defence lead and Glasgow South MP Stewart McDonald reacted to a Financial Times story about UK contingency plans for Trident to say nuclear submarines would be removed from Faslane “at pace” following independence.

Ruling out the possibility of the UK retaining the Trident submarine base on the Clyde and the neighbouring weapons storage facility at Coulport as a British Overseas Territory like Gibraltar, he emphasised that, “with a clear cross-party majority of Scotland’s elected politicians opposed to Trident, there is no possible parliamentary arithmetic that would allow these weapons to be kept at Faslane”.

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There is no question First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is fully committed to Trident’s ejection, and in January she endorsed the Scottish Women’s Covenant on the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. “They are morally, strategically and economically wrong,” she said. “The Scottish government is firmly opposed to the possession, threat and use of nuclear weapons and we are committed to pursuing the safe and the complete withdrawal of all nuclear weapons from Scotland.”

No room for doubt there, so there will be no modern equivalent of the Irish “treaty ports”, the three deep-water bases at Berehaven and Queenstown in Cork and Lough Swilly in Donegal retained by Britain in the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 which created the Irish Free State. Maintained in the event of recurring German submarine warfare, with war looming, the Royal Navy was dismayed by their willing return in 1938.

While global conflict might not be as imminent, since the 2014 referendum and the last time disruption of the UK’s nuclear deterrent was a possibility, international relations have deteriorated markedly.

Russia’s proxy war with Ukraine was only months old and its threat to the Baltic republics is now all too real, China has become far more belligerent and the Middle East more volatile than ever, and now the USA’s commitment to the Nato concept is questioned because of the abandonment of Afghanistan and the allies’ resulting war of words.

The contradiction of the SNP opting to remain in Nato ─ which has never indicated any intention of surrendering its “first-strike” nuclear capability ─ with disarmament has long been argued away by pointing to members like Norway without nuclear bases, and Canada which stopped hosting American weapons in 1984.

Further, with the Arctic ice cap melting and polar seas opening, it has been claimed Scotland’s geographical position would make ejection from the bloc inconceivable.

There is nothing new in the SNP’s position or the underlying problems since 2014, but the last thing the alliance needs now is the threat of disruption within one of the three nuclear-armed members, yet SNP policy would make Scotland the first Nato member to actively interfere with a major component of the deterrence infrastructure.

Maybe Ms Sturgeon isn’t too bothered, but the willingness to disrupt is incompatible with membership of Nato while the nuclear umbrella remains fundamental to its strategy for deterring aggressive nuclear-armed adversaries.

With suggestions that the UK Trident fleet could operate out of an ally’s port ─ either the US base in King’s Bay, Georgia, or the French facility at Longue in Brittany ─ regarded as financially preferable but politically impossible, the only alternative to a treaty port arrangement is a new UK base, possibly at Devonport or Milford Haven.

In 2014, the Royal United Services Institute put relocation costs at £3-4 billion, but taking inflation, notoriously slack defence procurement and the engineering complexities of handling nuclear material into account, £10bn might be closer to the mark.

By comparison, Hinkley Point nuclear power station has gone from £18bn in 2016 to £23bn and the £4.65bn cost of the Channel Tunnel was 80 per cent higher than expected.

If, as Mr McDonald says, “negotiating their removal will be one of the most important tasks a newly independent Scotland will face”, extracting compensation for the disruption would be as important for the other side. When he added “capitals across Europe will be looking to Edinburgh for assurance that we will be a reliable and trustworthy partner,” that applies equally to reliability as a continued defence partner and as a fair dealer in the hardest of haggles.

And what of the Clyde bases’ 6,000 employees? Turning them into a renewables manufacturing hub, as has been proposed, won’t get close if Forth Ports’ plans for a 175-acre site in Leith is anything to go by. It’s good news, but will create only 1,000 direct jobs.

Meanwhile, 600,000 people sit on NHS Scotland’s waiting lists, drug deaths are an international disgrace, and the Covid death toll has hit a six-month peak with infection rates in two health board areas the highest in Europe. If anything is morally wrong in Scotland, nuclear weapons we hope never to use are not top of the list.

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