The Scottish referendum: a chance to challenge our nuclear assumptions?

With just under six months to go until the referendum on Scottish independence, there is still little clarity about how any independence agreement would shape up in practice.  A myriad of issues remains on the table, ranging from the everyday – Will there be border control? How will the postal system function? Which television stations will be available? – right up to the most complex strategic questions over currency and economic independence, membership of international organisations, and the future of the UK and Scotland’s defense policies.

Recent polling data on the likelihood of independence varies significantly. Some have indicated support as high as 40% for the pro-independence campaign, with the “no” vote sitting at 45% – which, if accurate, could make for a nail-biting referendum day. The most recent poll, however, suggests substantially lower support for independence, at 28%.

Many of the strategic questions that are still on the table could or should be game-changing issues for voters, as they seek to understand exactly what it is they are putting their names to. Yet all of these issues will remain unanswered until the Scottish government begins its negotiation process with the London government following any independence decision. On 18th September, the only question on the ballot paper will be: “Should Scotland be an independent country? Yes / No”; the details will come later.

The question may be worded simply, but the implications are complex, and have potential to reverberate far beyond Scotland’s borders.

The majority Scottish National Party (SNP) Government set out its vision for independence last November in “Scotland’s Future: Your Guide to an Independent Scotland”. Included in this white paper: the commitment to deliver a “constitutional ban” on nuclear weapons in Scotland. The UK’s ballistic missile submarine fleet is currently housed, in its entirety, in waters just north of Glasgow, and the SNP promises to orchestrate their removal within the first term of the new Scottish Parliament, usually four years. This stance against nuclear weapons in Scotland has been a cornerstone of SNP policy since well before referendum campaigning started, featuring in both their 2011 and 2007 election manifestos – and it has proved to be one of their most popular policies to date.

The SNP’s timeframe is based on recommendations made by the Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, which estimated that, technically, removal could be done within two years. What this doesn’t account for, however, is the political context that would accompany any removal negotiation.

Whitehall has so far refused to engage publicly in contingency planning for such an event, on the basis that doing so would imply a lack of confidence in the Scottish people to vote no to independence. London is likely to continue resisting any discussion of the issue unless the referendum is lost and independence negotiations begin. This inevitably creates a sense of uncertainty in analysis about the SNP’s ability to deliver on their promise.

The cost for re-housing Trident elsewhere in the UK has been estimated at many billions of pounds, with a projected timeframe of 20 years. Some are even arguing that no alternative venue physically exists outside Scotland which would be able to accommodate the UK’s nuclear weapon submarine fleet. Any site that was identified would need to go through a complex public inquiry process likely to spark fierce local opposition. Questions would also likely surface over the need for new facilities in today’s environment. The implication could be that the SNP’s projected five year timeframe (or even a longer one) would, if followed through, amount to the unilateral nuclear disarmament of the UK.

Trident submarine

A Trident submarine leaving its base on the Clyde with the village of Strone visible in the background. Some rights reserved/Wikimedia commons.


It is worth noting here that the SNP’s White Paper is a political tool for navigating their pre-referendum campaign and post-referendum negotiations. It is not a clear or objective indicator of how the post-referendum negotiations would play out in practice. Contextual politics would almost certainly be a determining factor in the outcome on many of these key issues. Much will depend on the sliding scale of priorities that the SNP would likely have and the balance of strength in the respective hands of the Edinburgh and London negotiating parties. The removal of nuclear weapons from Scottish soil may be a “red-line” issue for the SNP today, but as the complexity of other defining issues – currency, European Union membership, national debt – begins to surface, this “red-line” may well evolve into a bargaining chip.

Whatever the outcome of the referendum – or indeed any independence negotiations – this debate over Trident in Scotland presents a rare opportunity to reflect critically on some of the assumptions that define the UK’s nuclear weapons policies.

Particularly interesting is the US reaction – or rather, the lack of one. A belief prevails, particularly among proponents of Trident, that an independent UK nuclear deterrent is a central factor in the UK’s special relationship with the US. Logically, it follows that any hint of a reduced British nuclear capacity should be creating waves in US policy discussion. But as a Scot based in Washington D.C., I can tell you this is not the case.

Coverage of the Scottish referendum in the US has been minimal, at best. Where it has been discussed, the focus has remained squarely on economic interests and implications for Europe. Perhaps this will pick up pace over the coming six months. Or perhaps policy-makers will only truly engage during any post-referendum negotiations. But it may also be the case that, if pushed, Americans believe the UK-US “special relationship” could survive the shock and would simply adapt to any shift away from an independent UK nuclear deterrent. Anecdotally, at least, there is some evidence for this. The bilateral relationship goes a great deal deeper than the submarines and their patrolling schedules.

Equally interesting is the SNP’s commitment to “negotiate [Scotland’s] transition from being a NATO member as part of the UK” to becoming “one of the many non-nuclear members of NATO”. The SNP’s vision is that Scotland’s security would “be guaranteed as a non-nuclear member of NATO, with Scotland contributing excellent conventional capabilities to the alliance”, as they look to states such as Norway and Denmark as models of NATO membership without nuclear weapons.

Politically, there are challenges. Norway and Denmark are, indeed, NATO members which do not have nuclear weapons on their soil, and which have a constitutional bar on them hosting any platforms with nuclear weapons during peacetime. But there is a conceptual difference. Both countries have continued to embrace the NATO strategic concept, which reaffirms a central role for nuclear weapons in the alliance. Neither Norway nor Denmark have ever hosted nuclear weapons and subsequently rejected them.

An outright rejection of the concept of nuclear deterrence, in the manner envisaged by the SNP, and the expensive ejection of a nuclear arsenal that currently is seen as having an important role in the Alliance’s nuclear deterrent posture, could hamper Scotland’s chances of securing membership NATO’s leadership has made clear that an independent Scotland would be subject to the usual application procedures for a new state.

But while the Scottish model would certainly be unique, we shouldn’t rush to the conclusion that it would be impossible. As with the questions around the UK nuclear deterrent, this is potentially an opportunity to revisit our assumptions. It is no secret that NATO is in need of an overhaul. Recent events in Crimea should be stimulating NATO to think more critically about what meaningful assurance means in practice – including the fact that, while some in Europe may cling to them for psychological purposes, nuclear weapons are largely redundant in terms of NATO’s practical response to crises.

It is still unclear where the debate around Scottish independence will come out. But regardless of the outcome, the discussion represents an opportunity to revisit some of our long-standing assumptions about the role nuclear weapons play in our multilateral relationships – and perhaps even our very identities.

These are the views of the author.

-This article was originally published on, a forum on, as part of a series written by BASIC Program Director Rebecca Cousins.


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