Helensburgh, like so many small Scottish towns, conveys a sense of calm: viewed from the vantage point of the locals friendly golf club the picture is quintessentially Scottish with views over Loch Lomond and the Clyde providing a dramatic backdrop from which to enjoy the setting. Yet shuffle down the road a mere six miles and the image blurs beyond recognition. Rather than lochs and peaks, you’re more likely to find nuclear submarines and barbed wire. For it is here, nestled away in an otherwise idyllic corner of Scotland’s west coast, that the UK’s sole nuclear weapons base, HMNB Clyde, calls home.
Since first testing a nuclear weapon in 1952 the UK’s nuclear status has never been seriously challenged. Sure, there have been periods of resistance; the nature of nuclear weapons virtually ensures this. There has, however, never been a point in which the deterrent has faced a fundamental challenge by relevant Westminster and MoD elites. And a cursory reading of the UK’s nuclear position in 2014 would make you believe that the picture remains more or less consistent. You could say then that HMNB Clyde’s location is rather fitting – it’s a non-issue in British politics, one to be confined to a quiet corner of the state.
Yet such a reading would be prove misleading. In order to establish why this is in fact the case, it is necessary to enter the murky world of conjecture. In other words, the infamous ‘what if’ question must be posed, and in this case it reads as follows:
What would happen to HMNB Clyde if Scotland were to vote for independence in the 2014 referendum?
The peculiar and profound impact that Scottish independence may pose to the UK’s nuclear deterrent only becomes clear once the respective positions of Westminster and Holyrood are constructed.
The Scottish position on the future of Trident is clear: it would be removed from an independent Scottish state on the grounds that it is ‘unlawful’ and ‘unconstitutional’. The SNP have been unequivocal on this point stressing it in elections manifestos, media statements and, crucially, their White Paper, Scotland’s Future. The SNP are not alone in wanting to get rid of the bomb though. Scottish antipathy towards the deterrent is inevitably tied in with wider concerns over the Union; the deterrent, in turn, has often been interpreted as a representation of English disregard for Scottish interests. Indeed, a historical study of Scottish attitudes towards the deterrent unearths a clear message of prolonged distaste for nuclear weapons across a staggeringly broad sweep of society.
The 1998 Scotland Act only served to accentuate this resentment towards the ‘English weapon’. According to the Act, defence matters are ‘reserved’ meaning that Westminster holds complete authority. As Trident falls under the remit of defence Scotland is left out of the picture on constitutional grounds. With the operation of the base requiring vast Scottish cooperation in the form of policing, environmental oversight and health and safety assistance, nationalists within Scotland have rightly felt that they have been looking after a weapons system they neither like nor control.
With this in mind, what would the SNP do with the base if they were successful in the referendum? In response to this very question, the White Paper explicitly states that HMNB Clyde would be transformed into a conventional naval base that acted as the main operating base for the Scottish Navy, in addition to acting as a Joint Forces HQ. This transition would be in line with an independent Scotland’s broader strategy of acting as an environmentally friendly state, with a leaner, more sensitively attuned military presence. Needless to say, nuclear weapons would be removed.
In order to demonstrate how this transition would be achieved the Scottish Affairs Committee refers to a CND ‘disarmament timeline’ that suggests the deterrent would be removed from Scottish territory within the space of a decade. While the White Paper is commendably more pragmatic in its take on disarmament, noting in an endnote that the removal and relocation of Trident would be the subject of lengthy and complex negotiation, the basic premise remains the same: the SNP would seek to remove and dismantle the nuclear arsenal as swiftly as possible. It must be stressed that as an independent state Scotland would be perfectly entitled to pursue its non-proliferation agenda.
For this reason the Westminster Government is entirely reactive to the issue. When probed on the matter, political elites in London have been naturally reticent. The official line states that they are not planning for Scottish independence; figuring out contingencies in such an event is therefore not government business. That being said, their position with regards to Trident is easily established.
While the SNP will certainly never come to love the bomb, those down South certainly do. With a replacement for Trident expected to be required around 2028, the Government has been in deliberation on the matter since a 2007 parliamentary vote passing replacement plans. Although the initial timeline for replacement has been delayed by the Liberal Democrat’s insistence on a report outlining alternatives (a report, incidentally, which had no real impact) the process remains largely on track. In reaction to the SAC Report, the House of Commons produced a document stressing the UK’s continued support for an independent nuclear deterrent. All Government statements have been unequivocal on this point: Trident provides an unsurpassed security guarantee for Britain as it represents the ‘ultimate weapon’. But how does Scottish independence fit into this, especially given that the SNP would demand its removal?
Beyond the obvious issues regarding cost and time – the figures vary, but best estimates suggest that it would be a £30 billion project undertaken over a 20-year period – the lack of any viable alternative base poses a serious obstacle to the future of the deterrent. A nuclear weapons base of the type the UK would require has to comply with a staggering amount of legislation ranging from regulations surrounding depth of water through to proximity to major population centres. The most robust review of alternative bases in the UK has turned up the conclusion that no alternative base in fact exists. Similarly, foreign basing options and a UK base in Scottish territory have similarly been ruled out.
So where to from here? To be sure, the removal and relocation of Trident would be a given in an independent Scotland. As an independent state Scotland would have full sovereignty to request this. The removal, however, would be far more complex and lengthy than the SNP suggest. In accordance with trends in customary international law, negotiations between Edinburgh and London over the base would have to be enshrined through a formal legal document with all specifics clearly laid out. This would include an exact timeframe for how the process would be undertaken, in addition to the exact way in which the two parties would cooperate. Given the scale of the project the negotiations would be prolonged, to say the least. Any hope of a ‘speedy’ removal would therefore be naïve. The removal of the deterrent would also come to mark the settlement discussions to a large extent. As MoD personnel have repeatedly stated, the cost of relocation would be factored in to the broader negotiations concerning Scottish secession. In this sense, the entitlement to North Sea oil reserves or the proportion of debt that the Scottish Government would take on would be dependent on how the two parties calculated the cost of Trident’s removal.
To understand the implications that this legal battle would have, it proves useful to return to an image of the base itself. Imagining the removal of Trident through the streets of Helensburgh is akin to imagining the end of Britain’s involvement with nuclear weapons. Whether you’ll encounter peaks and lochs on the outskirts of town or nuclear submarines in this sense becomes a question of great significance.