The renewal of the “independent British nuclear deterrent” has met remarkably little debate in the UK. Except in Scotland, that is. This week the leader of the Scottish National party and first minister in Edinburgh, Alex Salmond, went head-to-head with Alistair Darling, the Labour leader of the ‘Better Together’ campaign, for a second live debate over next month’s referendum on Scottish independence. Again, the issue of renewal of Britain’s submarine-based Trident nuclear-weapons system, and its Scottish bases at Faslane and Coulport proved symbolic—of London going over the heads of Scots by basing nuclear weapons north of the border, against the wishes of the majority, and yet of the perceived employment benefits arising.
Consider this: the UK government and its opposition are proposing to spend upwards of £20-30 billion over the next two decades on the capital cost of this project alone. There will be a good deal more over a longer period on the running costs of the new system and a supporting civil nuclear programme. This will risk Britain’s reputation internationally within the non-proliferation regime, which requires that nuclear-weapons powers seek disarmament in good faith.
And for what? For a defence of the union that is the UK, against a vague, uncertain and highly improbable threat based upon an ideology (nuclear deterrence) at best unproven.
And yet, alongside growing disillusionment with Westminster and Whitehall, Trident is perhaps the most potent political liability for the union, at its most fragile for several generations. It is a powerful reminder of the many dangers arising from over-dependency on maximising military capabilities.
Beyond the warm fuzzy feelings of Scots governing themselves independently of London, there are few clear financial benefits and much to fear in that scenario for the risk-averse north of the border: the future currency, business confidence and fiscal stability, to name just a few. And human beings, individually and in groups, tend to gravitate, when forced to be decisive, towards the devil-you-know status quo over the uncertainty of positive opportunity.
Yet, outside those communities in and around Helensburgh most dependent on it, Trident is clearly unpopular in Scotland, and would be seen by any future Scottish government negotiating independence as one of its few assets in the horse-trading that would follow a “yes” (for independence) vote. The nationalists’ current position is to demand the removal of Trident within the first government, by 2020. This may physically be possible but would likely prove very expensive and entail major risk for the system. It could also require costly political battles to achieve consent, if the UK government were to choose relocation over abandoning Trident altogether.
But any diplomat will tell you that a strong card only has negotiating value if you are willing to play it—to compromise on your position in return for benefits of more value to you. There is no doubting the motivation behind the nationalists’ intention to strengthen their commitment to removing Trident early: it’s like in a game of chicken throwing the steering wheel as far from the car as possible while driving at speed straight at your opponent. The aim is to increase the salience of the negotiating position. But to gain in other areas of high value to any future Scottish government—the currency, debt management, membership of the EU and NATO and any number of other concessions sought from a bruised London—they will need to compromise on Trident (or magic some other strong card).
My money would be on a new Scottish government negotiating an extended stay of execution for Trident in return for those prizes essential to the success of the newly-independent state. But neither Edinburgh nor London would want to retain the bases at Faslane and Coulport indefinitely, as there would be too many political, diplomatic and logistical complications.
But what if the referendum is lost on 18 September? Is independence then dead and buried? If the “no” vote is less than 60%, there remains a high risk of an early second referendum, years before the first replacement submarine touches the water.
This could indeed be ideal for those seeking a more orderly switch to independence, through a transitional period of maximum autonomy (so-called “devo max”). But it would render high-risk a long-term infrastructure investment presuming a lasting union, such as would be required at Faslane and Coulport.
Ministry of Defence (MoD) planners, used to exaggerating the risk of low-probability but high-impact events to rationalise investment in nuclear-weapons systems, ought to be considering scenarios based on the far, far greater probability of a “yes” vote in the next decade. However devastating for the political union, this can hardly be compared to Britain suffering nuclear blackmail or (heaven forbid) a nuclear attack—that is true. But it beggars belief to take at face value official claims that the MoD has not been modelling the requirement to relocate the nuclear bases south of the border.
The best attempt before the vote to outline the options came in a report earlier this month from the Royal United Services Institute. It concluded that it would be possible to relocate Trident in England (or possibly Wales) at a fraction of the cost earmarked for new submarine construction, though it could take a few years and there could be local political costs and some heart-searching.
The independence debate has already ensured that Trident renewal has received more attention than would otherwise have been the case.
The received wisdom within the deterrence and arms-control communities is that any doubt there may have been about modernising nuclear-weapons systems has evaporated with the conflict between Russia and NATO/EU over control of Ukraine. But this is short-sighted and represents in some cases wishful thinking. Though there is a paucity of debate in the mainstream media over appropriate responses to the crisis, public support for a renewed conflict with Russia is hardly overwhelming. And there is little evidence that British or NATO nuclear weapons have any relevance in face of the political, cultural and informal military tactics seen from Russia up to now.
NATO meets for its next summit in Newport, Gwent next week, and we must be prepared to hear more condemnation of Russia and calls for more military exercises and deployments and higher defence spending. It is unlikely there will be any mention of nuclear weapons at all. And nothing of the Scottish referendum.
But then the primary purpose of NATO summits is to communicate solidarity and cohesion. They tend to brush over inconvenient truths.
This article was originally featured in a regular column by Paul on OpenDemocracy.net.
Image: Flickr/Patrick Down. Some rights reserved.