Scotland: Trident and the independence debate

“Should Scotland be an independent country”? That is the sole question Scotland’s four million voters will be asked in a referendum on 18 September, 2014 – the outcome of which will determine the future of their (or as a Scot myself, based in Washington, I should say “our”) country. A hugely complex question wrapped up in six arguably simple words. Should Scotland be an independent country: yes; or, no?

The next 16 months running up to the vote will see countless analyses, parliamentary hearings, white papers and political back and forth, all seeking to provide some clarity on what Scottish voters would actually be signing up to. But ultimately the terms of the independence agreement, ending Scotland’s 305-year tie to the United Kingdom, would only be formally negotiated and agreed after a successful vote – meaning those supporting an independent Scotland are being asked to put significant faith in the country’s leadership to live up to its campaign promises.

So how likely is it that independence will happen after this vote? Polls can give us an indication – but with well over a year to go until the actual referendum, it is too early to read them with any confidence. While the Scottish National Party (SNP), in particular, has been actively outlining its agenda for independence, both the Yes Scotland (pro-independence) and the Better Together (pro-Union) campaigns will not start in earnest until much closer to the referendum date.

However, to give a flavor of where opinion currently stands, polls show that roughly a third of Scots support independence; roughly half oppose it, and; somewhere between 10% and 20% remain undecided. While such statistics may be welcome fodder for those Unionists keen to dismiss the notion of an independent Scotland, it is worth bearing in mind that a separation from the Union could still happen. Much will hang on where those undecided voters eventually cast their ballot. And with voting opened up to 16 and 17 year olds – notable because they are not yet legally permitted to vote in parliamentary elections – there is potential for fluidity in the current poll numbers.

In recent weeks, much of the debate around the terms of independence has focused on monetary policies – including, critically, whether Scotland would retain the Pound Sterling as their currency (politicians in London remain unconvinced). But looking ahead, the implications of independence could stretch well beyond the Scottish border.

Within the defense sphere, debate has centered around the future of the UK’s Trident nuclear weapons program, currently housed in Faslane and Coulport, just north of Glasgow. The SNP have been vocal about their intention to denuclearize Scotland in the event of independence – and to do so quickly. They have cited a two year timeline for the weapons to be removed from Scotland. Some within the defense industry have estimated that re-housing them elsewhere in the UK could cost at least £8 billion (approximately .5 billion), taking up to 20 years to agree and complete. And there are lots of complications involved.

The UK’s complete reliance on the Scottish bases in Faslane and Coulport is essentially Scotland’s key “trump card” in its negotiations with London. However, whether Alex Salmond, Scotland’s First Minister, would actually be able to impose such a stark change on Britain’s defense sector so quickly, remains open to question. It is certainly true that the majority of Scots oppose maintaining Trident in Scotland regardless of independence. And it would be domestically difficult for Salmond to back away from this pledge post-referendum, given the prominence he has given to it. But the broader conditions that he, and others, will be attempting to negotiate into any independence agreement – including those central to Scotland’s economic survival, such as currency – may mean that ultimately Salmond will see the removal of Trident as a strong negotiating asset within a broader deal, rather than an uncompromising position in itself.

Scotland’s role in NATO – an alliance built under a nuclear umbrella – will also play into this debate. It may be possible for Scotland to join NATO while pursuing a nuclear-free status – building on the Nordic model of nuclear-free membership. But it is unclear how this will play with the already complex NATO dynamic. Paul Ingram summarized the Scotland / NATO debate in a submission to the Defense Committee in the UK Parliament in July 2012.

Much of the detail around the terms of Scottish independence remains unclear: how likely it is to happen, what it would look like, and what the implications would be for bilateral, regional and international alliances. Whatever the outcome, the issue of Scotland hosting the UK’s nuclear deterrent 20 years after the end of the Cold War will feature heavily in the public debate in the run up to the referendum. It is also worth bearing in mind that the referendum will take place just nine months before the next U.K. General Election, when this will again feature on the electoral campaign agenda as Britain goes through the process of deciding whether to renew its nuclear deterrent. It promises to be an interesting time for those watching Britain’s relationship with its nuclear deterrent. We will be following the developing dynamics with interest, and will continue to provide commentary in the run up to – and after – the forthcoming referendum.

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