The connections between the UK’s Trident nuclear weapon system and the Scottish independence referendum in September 2014 are both fiendishly complex and absurdly simple
Here are a few of the complications. It is partly a tale of two governments that have their own referendum agendas but that are also highly sensitive to the potential effect on the referendum vote of positions they adopt publicly. The Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP), conscious of the power of the old principle — ‘always keep a-hold of nurse for fear of finding something worse’ — are in the business of arguing for independence while minimising the sensation of lurching change. Hence the ‘stay in (or join) NATO’ policy. For the Conservative-Liberal Democrat ‘Coalition’ government in London, the aim is to lay out their stake without inflating the ‘Yes’ vote through statements that would inflame rebellious currents north of the border. Hence the Downing Street rush to rule out the idea that Faslane/Coulport could be kept under London’s control as ‘sovereign territory’ post-independence (just as the UK kept 98 square miles of Cyprus for two British military bases, when Cyprus became independent in 1960).
Add to that the fact that the SNP’s NATO policy is not exclusively a tactical ploy to calm anxious hearts but is promoted and backed by true believers like Angus Robertson (an SNP MP in the Westminster parliament). The SNP itself is a coalition with a wide spectrum of views, including militaristic and socially-authoritarian trends. It will be argued that a ‘Yes’ vote in the referendum is a vote for a new blank slate state with everything, including a constitution, to be decided after the vote, not before it, rather than a vote for the SNP. While this is true, it is in the lead-up to the vote, and in the period immediately following a positive vote, that key negotiations, or at least the groundwork for negotiations, including those about Trident, would take place.
Noises off-stage critical of Trident, such as those from former senior military types, former Conservative MP Michael Portillo, and most recently former Labour deputy prime minister John Prescott, do suggest that the UK establishment is having an internal and whispered wobble over the future of the system. It may be that the strongest impulse driving the powers-that-be towards strong resistance to being involuntarily disarmed by an independent Scotland will be the potential loss of face involved both at home and abroad.
In that context, the option of de-commissioning (in the sense of mothballing the system rather than putting it permanently beyond use) as described in the Sunday Herald in a perceptive article by leading Scottish journalist Iain McWhirter, may come into play. McWhirter, who almost uniquely among mainstream commentators acknowledges the international law dimension of the problem, admits this is a fudge. It is, however, a more attractive fudge than the worrying elasticity in projected continued time for Trident at Faslane/Coulport.
There is also the hope that recognition among Scottish Labour people of the need to have a plan B in case of a ‘Yes’ vote in 2014 may encourage them to be more independent of the UK party and in particular to go with their conscience on Trident.
On the plus side, two factual inputs, mainly from Scottish CND, have acquired public credibility. One is the acceptance that only a very short time is actually required for Faslane/Coulport to cease to be the active base for a constant nuclear weapon threat. The other is that these bases are the only viable UK location for Trident.
A further wrinkle are the voices on the political left in Scotland who regard the traditional left’s anti-Trident stance as a kind of reverse sacred cow, an iconic issue clung to without much reflection, to the disadvantage of ‘bread and butter’ concerns like poverty and social exclusion. There is therefore some work to be done in pointing out that Trident is part of a package of connected security, economic and dominance issues that are tied in to alignment with one particular global power bloc.
The simple stuff lies around what we, as concerned people, might be doing. It has not yet dawned on the Scottish consciousness that the world is waiting and watching in hope for us to upset the first counter in the benign domino collapse towards global disarmament. While it is gratifying that, at least in Scotland, Trident has remained a key element in referendum discussion, at any moment the snow of complacency might begin to fall, blurring the sharp edges of the brutal facts about nuclear weapons, so that the Trident question becomes an ordinary matter of political judgment rather than a defining human issue.
In Scotland, we can take some encouragement from the fact that it was the peace movement which galvanised reaction to the SNP’s policy switch over NATO. At an early stage of that controversy, I recall being told by a friend that concern about NATO was restricted to ‘you two and a few friends’. If we had not decided to raise what in Scotland we call a ‘stushie’, we might never have discovered that the concern was in fact widespread. While the vote within the SNP on NATO membership was lost, albeit narrowly, the fuss that was made encouraged the SNP leadership to renew their insistence that Trident has no place in Scotland.
Also important was the fact that there was at that time thorough public discussion about the nature of NATO. One of the strands in that debate which needs to be more energetically aired is the matter of alignment. Does an independent Scotland follow the UK line and remain a modest runner for playground bullies or does it seek out others for mutual support towards some kind of sane and respectful global co-operation?
A continued fuss is essential. For us in the peace movement the challenge is remain alert to and connected with the political scene while never losing our gentle power to shock, confront and re-awaken.