By Liv Galbraith
While the path to an independent Scotland faces significant roadblocks, the renewed possibility of Scottish independence brings up questions about Scotland, the United Kingdom, and their respective places in the world. One of these questions, unresolved from 2014, is as much a question of the philosophical as the practical: what is the future of the United Kingdom’s nuclear arsenal, currently stationed at a naval base on Scottish soil about an hour from Glasgow.
This past December, the United Kingdom held its third general election in four years. The results were a landslide for the governing Conservative Party, who gained seats in every part of Britain. England and Wales gave the Tories their largest majority since 1987. There was one notable exception: Scotland roundly rejected the Conservatives.
The pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP) took seven seats from the Conservatives, reducing the number of Scottish Conservative Members of Parliament (MPs) from 13 to 6 and ultimately taking a total of 48 out of Scotland’s 59 parliamentary seats. On a night that saw Labour lose 42 parliamentary seats, Scotland instead embraced the SNP, who only lost one constituency.
Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP party leader, had actually based her party’s campaign on promises of a second referendum on Scottish independence. As the results became clear on December 13, Sturgeon declared that they gave her a “clear and undeniable mandate” to seek a new vote.
A successful push for independence would bring the long-simmering nuclear issue to a metaphorical boil.
The United Kingdom’s nuclear arsenal consists of four vanguard-class nuclear submarines, which entered service in the mid- to late-1990’s. One submarine is always deployed under the UK’s Continuous At Sea Deterrent. The rest are stationed at the port at Faslane, part of Her Majesty’s Naval Base Clyde. Each submarine currently carries eight trident missiles and up to 40 nuclear warheads. Each trident missile has a range of 7,500 miles and is capable of producing a destructive force equivalent to eight Hiroshima-sized bombs.
The SNP have long been opposed to the stationing of nuclear weapons in Scotland. They call Trident, as the UKs nuclear weapon program is known, “a weapons system designed for the Cold War” and argue that “the case for Trident is non-existent in 2019.” The SNP-led Scottish government has made it clear that an independent Scotland would be nuclear-free. In 2012, then-first minister and SNP leader Alex Salmond declared that it was “inconceivable that an independent nation of 5.25 million people would tolerate the continued presence of weapons of mass destruction on its soil.”
Scottish opposition to nuclear weapons poses a major problem for the UK’s Ministry of Defense (MoD). The base at Faslane is the only UK naval base capable of handling nuclear submarines. Upgrading and moving the nuclear submarines to an English base would cost an estimated £20 billion, while building a brand new base would take an estimated 20 years.
In 2013, The Guardian reported that the MoD was considering offering the Scottish government a deal whereby the base at Faslane would be designated sovereign UK territory, should Scotland vote for independence. The United Kingdom already has a similar set-up with its Royal Navy bases in Cyprus. The lease would last 10 years to allow for decommissioning, but could be extended if an independent Scottish government were to accept nuclear weapons in their country. However, once the plans became public, they were quickly disavowed by the British government and condemned by the SNP as imperialist.
An additional option is to move the submarines to the Kings Bay naval base in U.S. state of Georgia, where the trident missiles are periodically serviced. However, this would not only call into question the necessity of maintaining Britain’s nuclear arsenal, if it cannot actually be stationed in the United Kingdom. The situation would also potentially violate the NPT, which forbids nuclear weapons states from transferring their weapons to another country.
During the last Scottish independence referendum, the MoD stated that an independent Scotland would threaten the UK’s nuclear deterrent. Indeed, in a 2013 report, the Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament argued that Scottish independence would likely result in unilateral disarmament for the whole of the British Isles as the weapons would have “Nowhere to Go.”
For Scotland, the loss of operations at Faslane would be a practical problem centering on job loss. For the United Kingdom, some posit that the loss of these forces could threaten the United Kingdom’s self-image as a global power. As former Trident Submarine Lieutenant Commander Feargal Dalton told the Guardian in 2016: “Trident was about keeping Britain as a permanent member of the UN Security Council and most of the men I served with knew it too. We had an acute sense of, ‘If we mess this up, the UK will lose its place at the big boys’ table.” SNP MP Stewart Malcolm McDonald, quoting journalist Max Hastings, was blunter, calling it the “big-willy gesture of a small-willy nation.” For its part, the UK government has not commented on the nuclear weapons issue since the most recent general election.
Now, as hopes of independence once again animate a Scottish public, leaders in London will need to think about their options, including how constituents will possibly react to a £50 billion bill to build a new submarine base and whether nuclear weapons are the only thing that will keep the UK’s “place at the table.” Indeed, if nuclear weapons are symbolic of the United Kingdom’s status as a great global power, what symbol can be derived from a less united United Kingdom that cannot even find a place to keep those nuclear weapons?