Last Friday marked the one-year anniversary of the Scottish independence referendum in 2014. The United Kingdom’s nuclear deterrent, four nuclear-armed Trident submarines based at Faslane, Scotland, was a hot topic a year ago. The Scottish National Party vowed to scrap the subs if Scotland broke away.
But after 55.3% of voters decided to stay with Britain, the U.K. establishment is more determined than ever to maintain its nuclear weapons force. In a move that re-ignited last year’s flames over the Faslane facility, during a recent visit, George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer for the Conservative Party, announced a £ 500-million (approximately $775 million) plan to upgrade Her Majesty’s Naval Base (HMNB), Clyde, where the Trident submarines are located. Some interpret this announcement of facility upgrades as preemption by the Conservative Party to modernize nuclear-armed submarines before a scheduled Commons vote on the future of the Trident submarines in 2016.
While the Conservative Party is committed to maintaining a submarine-based nuclear deterrent, the opposition parties are less enthusiastic. The Labour Party appears to be divided on the subject of nuclear deterrence. Its newly elected leader, Jeremy Corbyn, had been a strong advocate for nuclear disarmament and vowed to “scrap plans for renewing the Trident nuclear defense system”. However, he recently softened his stance on the issue to mitigate opposition within the Labour Party: “I hope the party will come to a position of wanting us to become a nation that does not renew nuclear weapons…” On the other end of the spectrum, the anti-nuclear Scottish National Party (SNP) strongly opposes maintaining Britain’s nuclear deterrent program, principally in Scotland. The SNP leader and First Minister Nicola Strugeon recently signed the “Rethink Trident” statement organized by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), condemning the plan of modernizing the United Kingdom’s nuclear deterrence.
Despite this opposition, Osborne continues to advocate that Britain remain a nuclear state. But according to the U.K.’s national security intelligence agency, MI5, terrorism is the biggest threat to British national security. Britain’s nuclear deterrent is designed to deter state actors, but terrorism is an asymmetrical threat that nuclear weapons likely cannot address. As Richard Norton-Taylor, a British defense expert, recently pointed out, “terror groups are unlikely to be deterred by Britain’s long-range Trident intercontinental ballistic missiles.”
Many argue that these funds designated for the sub base should be used to boost the economy or focus on responding to terrorism.
The future of Trident has yet to be decided. The British Parliament will vote on the renewal of the Vanguard-class submarines in 2016 as scheduled. Non-proliferation advocates like Paul Ingram, Executive Director of the British American Security Information Council (BASIC), and Sir Nick Harvey, former defense minister, have been calling for “an informed debate” on the necessity of a renewed nuclear deterrent program, though some might not welcome the debate – particularly, military hawks and policymakers who don’t want to see the theory of deterrence challenged.
Furthermore, United Kingdom’s commitment to the Non-Proliferation Treaty was called into question this year, when the U.K. sided with Israel and the U.S. against the establishment of a nuclear-free zone in Middle East.
Unfortunately, the chancellor and his Conservative Party decided to pre-empt the scheduled 2016 vote that was to decide the fate of the U.K.’s nuclear deterrence program by announcing more funding for the Faslane naval base. While the chancellor believes his decision to invest in Faslane would create jobs for Scotland, and encourage the Scottish population not to hold another independence referendum, nuclear weapons are not an answer to Britain’s foremost security threat. Therefore, one should question the necessity of investing in the Faslane and the Trident submarine program altogether.