Scotland stays in the UK but decisions on Trident still to come

It’s not only the Royal Bank of Scotland that will this morning have ditched their contingency planning for a vote in favour of Scottish independence. Ministry of Defence officials walking past our office in Whitehall this morning seem to be breathing a big sigh of relief. News this week that the Royal Navy had been discussing the possibility of running their nuclear deterrent patrols out of Kings Bay, Georgia, even if only temporarily, shocked some observers. But we should not be surprised; if there had been a positive vote for independence the nuclear bases at Faslane and Couplort would have been a major liability for London within negotiations over the separation of the two states and to have been able to remove them from Scotland quickly would have strengthened London’s hand considerably.

But this is all a future that can now be forgotten. The result (55% in favour of retaining the union) has been officially described by the BBC as ‘decisive’. The over-riding assumption within Westminster will be that whilst the Cabinet Office and many government departments will be wrestling with the constitutional headaches of further devolution, not only to Scotland but to all regions across the UK, MoD will be shielded from such considerations. After all, control of foreign and defence policy will remain soundly with London.

But wait a moment: 45% of the Scots voted for independence. This must surely be a wake-up call to all those confidently predicting a genuinely decisive result a year or so back. With the shifts in opinion polls over the past year and the extraordinarily high turn-out showing high passions, there must surely be some doubt as to how stable majority Scots support for the union will remain over the next decade, particularly if Holyrood is able handle effectively those powers that are devolved in the near future and impress voters north of the border. Contrary to many statements this morning, there must be some chance that we see a similar referendum within this generation. Confidence in the future of the union, so strong a few years back, has had a big jolt, and belief in its full recovery within this mood of relief here in London is premature.

This has impact on long-lead investment choices that depend upon confidence in the union. And this applies to investment in Trident just as it does in the financial and business sector. Whilst the civil servants have experienced that stay of execution, they may yet be asked to consider options for future basing.

Moving operations from Faslane and Couplort has the distinct drawbacks of cost and taking away thousands of jobs from the Clyde, but has the major advantage of bringing more stability to long-term investment and removing a major symbolic liability for the union. Moving the bases to England has a number of logistical challenges, namely being that there are no clear and obvious places (they would probably have to settle for Devonport and Falmouth), electoral impacts (the party in government would likely suffer in the south west), further damage to support for Trident (questions over the need for massive investment) and most importantly cost that in all likelihood would see Trident renewal gobbling up more than half the MoD equipment budget for over a decade.

In this context, even with today’s no vote, the option of patrolling the submarines out of Georgia on the east coast of the United States is not as far-fetched as it might first appear. Kings Bay has the capacity and the logistics are not so challenging – it would simply mean regularly flying personnel and British warheads across the Atlantic. The American government and Congress would likely be supportive of the idea, and provide facilities at a reasonable cost. It may even have the added attraction in London of further strengthening the operational cooperation between the two navies and cementing the unique special relationship, possibly the most important reason for retaining the system in the first place.

The two countries have recently been negotiating amendments to the unique bilateral Mutual Defence Agreement (renewed every ten years) governing cooperation in the field of nuclear weapons technologies, platforms and missiles. President Obama placed ratification instruments before Congress in July and HMG are due to follow suit soon after the party conferences. Congress and Parliament are expected to ratify (quietly and by default) before the end of the year. Arrangements for the UK to patrol out of Georgia would not be out of kilter with the level of technical cooperation under the MDA that the UK in particular depends upon for the continued operation of its nuclear arsenal.

But if there were discussions in the MoD Main Building to patrol out of Kings Bay they, would do well to pause and think of the broader signaling. For a start, they would have to drop the already stretched description ‘independent’. Questions would be raised over the independence not only of UK’s nuclear arsenal but of the UK itself. We might certainly expect soon a BBC radio programme, ‘what’s the point of Trident?’ It would not be difficult for detractors to point to this decision as a symbol of opposition within the UK to its nuclear deterrent and an inability to base at home. And whilst there is precedent in a nuclear weapon state basing its forces in other countries (the United States has B61 warheads in five allied states), there are none unable to host their own.

Diplomats meeting this coming month in New York to review the state of the world’s non-proliferation instruments will be looking for positive opportunities in the rough of bad news this last year. It is will not help the signaling if it looks as if the UK is making desperate moves to retain its nuclear arsenal by surrendering operational control to the United States. British abilities to lecture others to exercise self-restraint would be dented.

The wild card of Scottish independence has been played and has not been decisive in this round of the game. But those who might think it’s all over and that we are on a smooth sail for the UK’s next generation of nuclear weapon systems into the eighth nuclear decade would do well to think again.

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