Trident: at what cost would an independent Scotland refuse the nuclear option?

Banishing Trident from an independent Scotland may be the ultimate aim for the SNP, but is it achievable and at what cost?

NUCLEAR weapons have been based in a reluctant Scotland for half a century. Churches, trade unions, local authorities, protest groups, countless individuals, and the Scottish Parliament have called persistently for their removal and an end to the policy of nuclear deterrence. To no avail. London’s power of decision has remained absolute.

Freeing Scotland of nuclear weapons has been heart and soul to the SNP. Once in government, however, it has been noticeably reluctant to take actions that would disturb the status quo. It has honoured the 1998 Scotland Act, under which defence and foreign policies are reserved matters. And it has cooperated where authority is devolved in the provision of emergency, policing and other services, without which Trident could not function. Ending Scotland’s special role in housing the UK’s nuclear force has been subservient to the SNP’s desire to demonstrate its ability to govern. There has been no appetite for a confrontation that it could not win.

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Trident’s eviction has, nevertheless, remained central to the SNP’s identity and purpose. As the referendum approaches, it may be trumpeted as one of independence’s great prizes. So far, however, the SNP has not had to explain how and when Trident’s removal could be achieved and how the costs and benefits would stack up. The Scottish Government needs to show it has a credible plan that can be delivered after winning independence. The Scottish Labour Party may also find Trident a tricky issue in the referendum campaign. Will it oppose the Scottish Government’s position? If it does, partly to maintain solidarity with the Labour Party in London, can it rebut the accusation of being a friend of nuclear weapons and protector of their presence in Scotland?

The SNP routinely asserts that, come independence, Trident will and can go because alternative sites to Faslane on the Gareloch (the submarine base) and Coulport on Loch Long (where warheads and missiles are stored and loaded) can be found in England. This is implausible. Although a harbour might be adapted to function like Faslane, establishing another Coulport – at a location that would meet stringent safety and logistic requirements – would be extremely difficult. Furthermore, transfer south would require huge investments to replace infrastructure built in Scotland over decades.

One riposte is that the 2007 decision to replace Trident with a “like-for-like” system is already being reconsidered in Whitehall, creating options for relocation. A Cabinet Office study of alternative systems, presided over by a Liberal Democrat minister, is under way. But it lacks sincere backing across government. For the Conservative Party, it is a harmless concession to coalition partners uncomfortable with the replacement decision. In any case, its recommendations are unlikely to affect the nuclear force’s location. The options receiving most attention – a slimmed down Trident (three boats rather than four) and adaptation of the Astute-class submarines to take “dual-capable” missiles (carrying conventional and nuclear warheads) – would not rid Scotland of nuclear weapons.

A promise to evict Trident on gaining independence would therefore amount to a promise to shut down the UK’s nuclear deterrent and enforce its disarmament. The Scottish Government could claim compliance with international law, since pursuit of nuclear disarmament is an obligation under the Nuclear Non- Proliferation Treaty that successive UK governments have pledged to honour.

However, the legal commitment is famously loose and usually interpreted as entailing multilateral rather than unilateral disarmament. Scotland’s joining the NPT as a non-nuclear weapon state would also not forbid the basing of nuclear weapons on its territory by the rest of the UK (rUK), following the US example in Europe and east Asia. That said, basing a nuclear weapon state’s entire force on the territory of a non-nuclear weapon state would be unprecedented and would not go unnoticed.

In political reality, a Scottish Government winning a vote for independence would face three obstacles to fulfilment of a promise to get rid of Trident, assuming commitment to the deterrent remained solid in Westminster.

Firstly, insistence on eviction would discourage London’s cooperation on issues that would be immediately vital to Scotland’s establishment as a viable state, including the national debt, pensions and North Sea oil, and support for Scotland’s membership of the United Nations, European Union and other international organisations.

The Scottish government could hardly expect flexibility on these matters whilst displaying inflexibility on Trident. Indeed, willingness to give rUK basing rights for Trident’s stay in Scotland could become a valuable bargaining card if Scottish antipathy could be overcome (a big if). It could also symbolise Scotland’s desire for a relationship based on partnership, not animosity.

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Secondly, the Scottish government would risk incurring the displeasure of the American, French and other governments without whose support Scotland would struggle to gain recognition and respect. It would not go down well if the newcomer immediately sought to deprive an important ally of a prized asset. Furthermore, there would be implications for the transatlantic alliance and European security since the UK’s deterrent has long been ‘assigned to Nato’ and has augmented and counterbalanced the French nuclear force (Anglo-French cooperation has also been growing in this field).

Thirdly, the decommissioning of submarines, reactors, warheads and facilities would have to be organised.

This would itself be expensive and Scotland possesses little of the necessary expertise. It could not be carried out without London and Washington’s cooperation, given the latter’s ownership of the missiles and involvement in the British weapon programme.

Desiring to appear reasonable, the SNP might adopt a stance that would allow the present Trident system to operate out of Scotland during its remaining lifetime but refuse to house its replacement. It would commit Scotland to a phase-out rather than sudden closure. This would provide England with ample time, the argument might go, to develop other sites and systems and would give fair notice to Nato member states. But such a stance would not change the fundamentals. Without alternative sites, phasing out the current system would entail phasing out the UK’s deterrent. As the first boat is expected to retire in the late 2020s, it also implies that Trident would remain in Scotland for decades rather than years to come. This would be a hard sell, especially within the SNP.

The politics of all this would change, however, if support for the nuclear deterrent ebbed away across the UK. There are plenty of people in England, including some senior figures in the armed forces, who would happily say good riddance. Although they do not occupy the political high ground today, this could change when heavy spending on Trident’s replacement hits the defence budget amidst continuing austerity later this decade. The political mood could turn against it, making a Scottish call for abolition look increasingly mainstream.

Indeed, Trident may emerge as a significant issue in the run-up to the 2015 general election just as the Scottish referendum is happening. The debates would then interact. If the Labour Party shifted ground and Liberal Democrats stiffened their opposition, anti-Trident coalitions could form north and south of the Border. They might conceivably coalesce around the ‘dual capable’ weapon system, entailing gradual conversion of the submarine fleet to conventional roles without an immediate, politically risky commitment to nuclear abolition. This option could even tempt the SNP’s pragmatists since the converted submarines would help to sustain employment around Faslane.

Iran’s possession of nuclear weapons (a distinct possibility before the referendum) and concerns about nuclear proliferation, the rise of China and an unpredictable Russia would nevertheless create an inauspicious environment in which to push for the deterrent’s abandonment. It would open proponents to charges of irresponsibility. Furthermore, anxieties about Britain’s international decline may increase the attraction of nuclear weapons for a significant section of the population, especially on the political right where Britain’s “punching above its weight” has special appeal.

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Remaining a nuclear weapon state and permanent member of the UN Security Council (linked in perception if not reality) is often seen as the most reliable anchor of the UK’s great power status.

Hitherto, policymakers in London have paid scant attention to the possibility of Scotland becoming an independent state. The assumption when the issue is raised (seldom) in the Ministry of Defence and Foreign Office is that voters will “see sense” and reject independence, the referendum settling the issue once and for all. They also assume that further devolution, including “devolution-max”, would not disturb London’s grip on nuclear policy.

They should ask themselves, however, whether a Scotland with full fiscal autonomy would willingly dip into its pockets to help finance Trident’s replacement. Scottish taxpayers’ resistance to transfers of revenue for such an unpopular cause can be expected. On Trident and other vital issues, including the waging of war, the hitherto strict political boundaries between reserved and devolved matters may be harder to maintain if devolution-max, however eventually defined, comes about.

Where all of this leads is very unpredictable. Few now believe that the 2007 decision to replace Trident is stable, largely for economic reasons. It is bound to be revisited after the 2015 general election. Perhaps this provides the Scottish government with its safest line of argument, creating room for manoeuvre without abandoning the main aim: “the Trident debate will soon be reopened; give us independence so that Scotland’s interests can be served at last”. Its leaders know that compromise may be forced on them unless opinion across Britain shifts decisively against maintaining the deterrent.

Nuclear policymakers in London would, nevertheless, waken to a new, discomforting situation if the referendum delivered a strong vote for Scottish autonomy, of whichever kind. It would provide another slant on the deterrent’s independence.

Over the years, the UK has acclimatised to dependence on American cooperation, knowing that Washington could shut down its nuclear force at any time. It would henceforth have to acclimatise to dependence – to an unaccustomed degree – on Scottish cooperation, which would probably be less congenial, despite Scotland’s comparative powerlessness.

A Conservative-led government will be inclined to take no chances. Preserving the nuclear deterrent and Westminster’s absolute power of decision will, when attention focuses, strengthen desires to engineer the Scottish government’s resounding defeat in the referendum. But it cannot fight its corner by arguing that Trident’s survival in Scotland is cause for rejecting independence. Nor can it argue that it will impose its will, come what may.

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The nuclear issue, therefore, contains political traps for both Scottish and UK governments. Don’t be surprised if they treat it warily in the referendum campaign. «

• William Walker is Professor of International Relations at St Andrews University. Together with Malcolm Chalmers, he is the author of Uncharted Waters: The UK, Nuclear Weapons And The Scottish Question (Birlinn). His latest book A Perpetual Menace: Nuclear Weapons And International Order (Routledge) was published in September