Joyce McMillan: Hope finally surfaces as last resort

HMS Victorious on the Clyde remains an enduring image of Scotland's role in nuclear defence. Picture: Danny Lawson
HMS Victorious on the Clyde remains an enduring image of Scotland's role in nuclear defence. Picture: Danny Lawson
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Fear of change must give way to optimism for a nuclear-free future to be shared across all nations, writes Joyce McMillan

ON THE front page of The Scotsman, this week, the image of a Trident submarine, surfacing out of cold blue-grey water; there’s something odd about the look of it, nostalgic and slightly retro, yet still menacing.

Like most people born and raised in the west of Scotland since the Second World War, I guess I feel some kind of connection – of approval, or rejection, or just vivid memory – with the nuclear submarines based on the Clyde, either Trident, or its predecessor Polaris.

When I was a child, for example, my family had a hut on the shores of Loch Long, between Cove and Coulport. I remember the ominous rush of dusty buses full of construction workers that suddenly appeared in the early 1960s, grinding up and down the narrow coast road; how the high fences around the old naval base at Coulport grew higher and more menacing, and how the hillside there was hollowed out and reshaped, to become the UK’s primary nuclear warhead store.

I remember my parents’ sadness and anger as they explained this to me; they were not nationalists, but they did not think it right that one of the most beautiful places in Britain should be sacrificed in this way, to the terrifying idea of “mutual assured destruction”. And later, when I was a student at St Andrews in the early 1970’s, I remember marching with Alex Salmond himself, on a long protest walk to the Faslane; we spent the night in sleeping bags on the floor of Clydebank Town Hall, and the entertainment was provided by a young chap called Billy Connolly, who – everyone agreed – was breathtakingly funny, for a complete unknown.

Then like many people, I think I pushed those submarines and their meaning far into the back of my mind; with the end of the Cold War, the threat of global nuclear war seemed to recede, and with it the terror-driven politics out of which Polaris and Trident had been born. Yet although the politics shifted, the weapons remained; powerless to protect us against the new threats of a new era, yet still sliding out of the Clyde into the world’s oceans, to prowl and patrol. During last year’s Edinburgh Festival, at the Traverse, audiences gathered to watch David Greig’s short play Letter Of Last Resort, about a newly-elected Labour woman Prime Minister faced with the task of writing the letter of instruction that Britain’s Trident commanders will open, in the event of the total destruction of the UK in a nuclear attack; a play that leads us straight into the heart of the theory of deterrence, and the strange never-ending game of expectation, illusion and probability for which these weapons were devised, amid the profound hope that they would absolutely never be used.

Now, though, the debate over Scotland’s independence referendum forces us to look again, straight and hard, at the Trident bases on the Clyde, and whether or not we want them there. The SNP assumes – probably rightly – that at the gut level most Scots would rather be rid of them. The union parties, on the other hand, tend to take it for granted – again, probably with good reason – that the anti-nuclear sentiments of the Scottish public are fragile, when confronted with hard talk about government investment and jobs. This week, the UK government flatly denied that it has any plans at all to relocate the bases, so certain is it of a No vote in 2014; but unionist voices continue to warn that Faslane is now Scotland’s largest industrial site, with up to 19,000 jobs directly or indirectly dependent on its continuing presence.

And in that sense, the debate over Trident carries a powerful symbolic weight, not only for the United Kingdom parties and for Scottish nationalists, but for the shape of the debate itself – an increasingly familiar clash between vague, but high-sounding aspiration on one side, and a dour, conservative pragmatism on the other, all played out against a chorus of British establishment voices claiming that “the devil is in the detail”, and that the complexity of the issues raised by any attempt to remove Trident from Scotland represent a strong argument against the very idea.

In truth though – and this is a lesson well-learned from the constitutional debate of the 1990’s, in dealing with the power-structures of the UK – the devil is almost never in the detail. On the contrary, the devil is almost always in the question of principle, and in the political will to achieve change; and it is for that reason that the whole independence debate, and the decision on Trident with it, should have been two-phased at the start – as all good constitutional processes are – into an early indicative vote on the principle of independence, followed, in the event of a Yes vote, by long years of detailed negotiation, and a second vote to ratify the new arrangements.

Instead, though, in relation to Trident as in so many other areas, we are now trying – thanks to the First Minister’s determination to delay the referendum – to conduct the debate of principle alongside a messy and necessarily half-baked series of speculations about what might eventually happen in a decade of practical independence negotiations; hence the constant demands by confused voters for “facts” about our possible independent future which by definition do not exist, because they can only be forged in a historical process which has not yet begun, if it ever begins at all.

It was the late Joe Strummer of the Clash, I think, who reminded us that the future is unwritten. And what that means is not only that the Scots have the power to write themselves an independent and Trident-free future, should they choose it – for if Scotland votes decisively to get rid of Trident, be in no doubt that ways will be found to achieve it.

It also means that the people of England, faced with the possibility of warhead stores in Cornwall or Barrow-in-Furness, have the power to do the same; and that sometime between now and 2025, they too might finally conclude that the age of Trident is over, and begin to write themselves a new national story, for a new millennium.