Scottish referendum: update & implications on Trident

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This morning, the Scottish government published the long-awaited White Paper on Scottish Independence as promised. Scotland’s Future - Your Guide, it is hoped, will act as a comprehensive manual for an independent Scotland. But apart from formally setting out the manifesto points which have already been widely discussed, there are no new surprises concerning the future of Trident concealed within its 670 pages.

In 2010, the UK Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) assumed a certain level of continuity in defence strategy, and in particular the plan for like-for-like renewal of the Trident nuclear weapon system when it reaches the end of its service life in 2028. However, just as the Initial Gate Parliamentary Report was released, events in Scotland were casting uncertainty over these plans. On 5 May 2011, Alex Salmond and the Scottish National Party won a majority in the Scottish Parliament. In October of 2012, David Cameron and Scotland’s First Minister sat down to sign the historic Edinburgh Agreement which gave the Scottish electorate the unprecedented right to decide the future course of the nation in a referendum in September 2014; the result of which largely depends on the way certain issues are dealt with in today’s White Paper. What’s certain is that an independent Scotland would cast some doubts over the future of the rUK’s nuclear weapons programme.

Since then, events have continued to unfold and it would be premature to take for granted that a ‘no’ vote in 2014 is a foregone conclusion. Despite poll statistics from Ipsos Mori and TNS showing a fairly consistent section of pro-Independence voters, in the region of 25%, and pro-Union voters at around 40%, First Minister Alex Salmond is clearly focused on engaging the remaining sizeable chunk of the undecided electorate. This was more than obvious at the SNP conference in Perth in October, where he laid down some of his core manifesto promises: renationalisation of Royal Mail, £60m to be invested in economic development jobs, minimum wage which increases yearly with inflation, and so on...

Salmond’s attitude is clear: Edinburgh is more collectivist than London, and all the devo-plus measures Westminster could introduce will be insufficient to satisfy the appetite amongst Scots. Nevertheless, the UK government is elaborating such new measures in the shape of greater autonomy over income tax rates, devolution of stamp duty, land tax and landfill, all in the case of a ‘no’ vote, of course. One of the main bones of contention that remains is the basing of the UK’s nuclear deterrent, Trident, on the Clyde some 30 miles from Glasgow. Today’s White Paper reaffirms the SNP’s adamance to constitutionally outlaw nuclear weapons in line with widespread public demands to get the UK’s deadly arsenal out of its backyard.

Politically, however, there are more dynamics at play. Whilst the SNP has made it a very fundamental cornerstone of its manifesto to bring the electorate’s wishes to fruition and eject Trident from Faslane and Coulport, Scottish Labour has been strangely quiet on the issue. Caught in a bind between not upsetting the electorate, and not upsetting Labour leader Ed Miliband, the party has opted to say nothing, so it is unclear how these dynamics would come to combine in the event of independence, and then a hung Scottish Parliament in the 2016 elections. However, there are reasons to believe that the SNP’s firm stance may be a negotiating tactic with some level of future flexibility; after all, the party set a precedent when it changed its 30 year stance on NATO membership last year. Despite opposition within the party, the SNP now plans for a future independent Scotland to join the alliance, but insists that it would be conditional on its not hosting nuclear weapons. This stance has been deemed as ‘unbridgeable’ by Lord Robertson, a former secretary general of NATO, but Salmond is adamant that Scotland could participate in a similar way as Norway, Denmark and Iceland. Whether this membership is automatic, and how it would be received remains to be seen in the event of a ‘yes’ vote in 2014 and subsequent SNP victory at the general elections.

So what does this all mean for Trident? The MoD is probably having to plan an alternative Trident basing locations, each with their political and logistical challenges. But in secret. Both Philip Hammond and the Nick Harvey have insisted that no contingency plans are being made for Scottish independence, for fear that this would appear to show a lack of confidence in the result. Westminster’s reluctance to acknowledge the issue has opened the ‘Better Together’ campaign to the label ‘Project Fear’. Cameron’s unwillingness to engage in debate with Salmond only fuels these perceptions.

The Trident Alternatives Review (TAR), released by the Cabinet office in July this year, was a missed opportunity for an informed debate. All of the alternative locations, Barrow, Milford Haven and Devonport, have essentially been rejected for various strategic and logistical reasons, but the underpinning concern is ultimately one of safety, especially among growing reports of blunders and accidents. Convincing citizens to accept Trident as their new neighbour would be especially problematic considering the politics of investment, local opposition and a lack of any public awareness of the role for Trident decades after the end of the Cold War. This limited discussion of alternative bases creates the impression that, rather than being a symbol of national pride and security, Trident is actually something of a hot potato; the school bully everyone wants to be on good terms with but won’t risk being around.

Another option was the suggestion of declaring Faslane a British sovereign base, but this, as well as being practically unfeasible, was also met with ardent disapproval from the Scots and Downing Street found itself caught between a rock and a hard place, aware that Trident depends on the strategic deep waters of the Clyde, but very conscious of not enraging more Scots into a pro-independence stance. So it seems that, as Westminster realises that any contingency plans detailing credible alternative Trident storage locations would be painfully brief, if not blank, the adamance that such measures will not be necessary strengthens as does their faith in a ‘no’ outcome.

Essentially, the biggest factor which seems to be at play here is the question mark Scottish independence could place over the rUK’s Nuclear Weapon State status. The main arguments against alternative systems, postures and locations all centre around the exorbitant time frames (as well as costs) which any new factors would take to be implemented. Estimations lie in the 20 year mark for the development of an alternative base, but this number could easily increase with the potential for major social rehousing or if there was widespread resistance against relocation. In the end, the challenge of re-basing could be the final nail in the coffin for a UK nuclear force. If so, Salmond could end up achieving his objective - and losing his most valuable negotiating card with the rUK.

Whilst the mood in Westminster seemed smugly confident that the flame of Scottish separationism would be extinguished by an overwhelming ‘no’ vote in September 2014, there remains the possibility of a strong blow to the Union, and that those palpable concerns lie hidden under the surface. Westminster’s main tactic is to reinforce just how indispensable the UK is to Scotland across the board. However, the recent Scotland security analysis published by the Home and Scottish Offices on the 29th October was seen by many as inciting fear without strong evidence. It seems clear that the rUK would use NATO membership and other factors such as control of the currency as leverage over Scotland in order to try and reach an agreement over basing, the alliance having made it clear that disputes would have to be settled before Scotland could enter. We can expect over the coming year to hear all sorts of assurances and counter-threats, with devolution carrots in other areas dangled in front of the Scottish electorate. 

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