Lesley Riddoch: Trident doubt could help SNP

Sailorson HMS Astute, the nuclear submarine. Picture: Getty
Sailorson HMS Astute, the nuclear submarine. Picture: Getty
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SHOULD the UK government decide not to replace Trident, Scotland’s voting decisions may change, writes Lesley Riddoch

IS THE UK government set to scrap Trident replacement? If it is, will such a sensational policy U-turn boost support for Scottish independence or rob the SNP of its anti-nuclear moral high ground overnight? I’ll grant you, no Trident-scrapping scenario has recently looked likely.

But last week, Danny Alexander, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, announced the UK might not be able to afford a “like-for-like” Trident replacement, saying: “We are in a position where the costs of the successor [system] have to be paid from the Ministry of Defence budget. There is no magic pot of money to be created out of thin air… on top of that.”

Labour’s former defence secretary Des Browne then weighed in, saying nuclear deterrence as a cornerstone of defence strategy was “decreasingly effective and increasingly risky” and suggesting Trident should stop being deployed round the clock.

Former Tory defence secretary Lord King quickly completed the cross-party constellation of party grandees when he said ministers should consider “very carefully” whether Trident replacement is strategically necessary or affordable. Nuclear weapons – he observed – are not “God’s gift” for resolving modern conflict.

So far, so promising. Every opinion poll has shown public sentiment north of the Border favours scrapping Trident, and in 2007 the Scottish Parliament voted by 71 to 16 (with 39 abstentions) against renewal. Even so, the UK government is currently spending £350 million on preparatory work – according to the Scottish Government, that could finance 8,333 nurses, 9,722 teachers, 43 primary schools, 18 secondary schools or 18 community hospitals. And £350m is only a tiny fraction of the £87 billion final spend.

Of course, the guarded comments by Messrs Alexander, Browne and King do not signify a Westminster about-turn – not yet. But the Lib Dems insisted on an official review into Trident as part of the coalition agreement in 2010 and that taskforce – led by Alexander – is due to report this June.

If deficit reduction is still non-existent – indeed if the triple-dip recession looks like a fixture – can the UK government face the next general election committed to a Trident replacement or a marginally cheaper nuclear weapon system? If not, might the Alexander report offer a timely opportunity to get off the Trident train? If it might, is public opinion currently being prepared for the volte face?

And if – by June – it’s clear that abandonment lies ahead, do anti-nuclear Scots really need to vote Yes in 2014 to rid Scotland (and the UK) of Trident?

The 2012 Scottish Social Attitudes (SSA) survey, out last week, prompted much beard-pulling as commentators tried to explain why support for independence has fallen to its lowest ebb since 2007, despite the enduring popularity of the SNP and support for more tax powers heading north. A popular theory suggests the SNP have run devolution so well they’ve dimmed appetite for the ultimate constitutional change.

If such a perverse electoral dynamic is at work then the extraordinary possibility of a U-turn on Trident-renewal at Westminster might only rob the anti-Trident SNP of a unique selling point whilst failing to reward them for “converting” their hitherto 
pro-Trident unionist opponents.

Of course, voting for an independent Scotland in 2014 would give certainty, priority and urgency to the removal of nuclear weapons from Faslane – unless American pressure is exerted behind the scenes, thanks to Scottish membership of Nato. It would be ironic indeed if an independent, SNP-led Scotland found itself placating the American-led nuclear alliance just as Westminster took a big step towards nuclear 
non-proliferation in bold defiance of it.

On the other hand, Scottish voters who’ve felt generally anxious about leaving “steady as she goes” mothership Britain may feel reassured to hear the SNP’s radical policy on cancelling Trident being parroted by the party’s staunchest Westminster critics as well.

Over recent years, a welter of progressive Scottish policies have been first ridiculed, then opposed and finally adopted by successive Westminster governments. First devolution itself, then the smoking ban, currently minimum alcohol pricing and maybe soon axing Trident.

Indeed, even David Cameron’s breathtakingly hypocritical call for a referendum on Europe (which somehow won’t economically immobilise Britain although Scotland’s independence referendum will) – that too might seem to be inspired by the SNP’s determination to resolve constitutional uncertainty outwith the usual democratic mechanisms in a one-off, focused referendum.

The very contemplation of such massive policy change also suggests that mothership Britain is far from steady as she goes. Scottish voters may have become inured to the daily evidence of social and economic damage wrought by George Osborne’s austere Plan A. But news of this hugely disruptive vote on EU membership demonstrates that a quiet life (politically speaking) will be hard to find anywhere in British waters – within or without the Union – for the rest of this decade.

Leaving the EU will quite evidently have profound consequences for business, society and the economy – possibly more profound than anything Alex Salmond’s indy-lite looks likely to create.

So even if scrapping Trident recedes as an SNP-favouring touchstone (and it’s still a huge if), leaving Europe could quickly replace it as a game-changer within the independence debate, as the public digests the near-certainty of Britain-wide disruption and change.

At a book event two weeks ago, former first minister Henry McLeish said the real prospect of Britain leaving the EU would be enough to make him support Scottish independence. Of course, when Scots vote next year, Britain’s future in Europe (and the identity of the next UK government) will still be unknown. But Cameron has now opened Pandora’s box and shown Scottish voters that radical constitutional change is possible – even probable – whether we vote to leave the UK or stay in it.

All of which sounds like good news for Alex Salmond. If alarm bells start ringing loudly over Europe, who will hear words of caution about independence?

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, what’s not to like about Westminster parties finally warming to the First Minister’s once-solitary “dump Trident” call?

And yet in politics, who dares wins.

A Cameron about-turn on Trident could steal Salmond’s thunder or show anxious voters the SNP leader’s been right all along on big, contentious issues the Scots alone were ready to tackle.

Whatever surveys say, the 2014 result is even more in the balance.