Scotland: questioning nuclear weapons and NATO membership

UK Prime Minister David Cameron meets with Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond in Edinburgh today to sign a historic deal that will see a legally-binding referendum vote on the single question of full independence for Scotland within the next two years. Most media attention is focused today on the constitutional issues, but there could be significant impacts on the whole of NATO and on the future UK nuclear deterrent. Today’s deal will have to be ratified by both the British and the Scottish parliaments, but there is little doubt of this happening.

Both sides have been claiming they have achieved a good deal. Cameron has ensured the vote will be a simple yes-no on independence, and while the Scottish National Party (SNP) command an overall majority in the Scottish Parliament and form the Scottish government most opinion polls give a strong lead at present to those arguing against independence. By agreeing to this deal Salmond has secured a politically and legally-binding vote and a date of autumn 2014, and marginally increased his chances by bringing in 16 and 17 year olds into the vote.

Attention will then move later this week to the SNP annual conference in Perth (Thursday to Sunday), and on the top of the agenda will be the debate on whether the Party should retain its current policy of an independent Scotland joining NATO’s Partnership for Peace programme, operating alongside NATO allies on a case-by-case basis, or whether it should apply for full membership, as the leadership is now arguing. Those for joining NATO see it as a means to show the Scottish electorate that the SNP is acting responsibly in the interests of Scottish security and looking for strong relationships with allies. Opposition within the Party looks strong, focusing predominantly upon the deep commitment of the Alliance to nuclear deterrence, and the fear that the membership process would weaken the SNP commitment to eject British nuclear weapons and submarine forces from the Scottish bases of Coulport and Faslane.

And while the SNP’s position on NATO may be determined this week, the thorny issue of UK nuclear bases in Scotland, and they symbol they represent of London’s control, is likely to get more heated over the next two years in the run up to the referendum. Opinion in Scotland appears strongly in favour of ending the stationing of nuclear weapons in Scotland. Though this has so far appeared to have had little impact on people’s voting intentions, in a referendum campaign it seems likely that the issue will be used to highlight differences of opinion between London and Scotland. And with heightened public attention on the issue just months before the 2015 General Election and two years before the final decision is taken on the construction of the next generation of SSBN submarines that carry Britain’s nuclear weapons, there may yet be some impact on the choices made.

These are the personal views of the author.

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