The SNP’s insistence that Trident be removed should be a total non-starter
The lack of options for moving the UK’s nuclear deterrent outside Scotland means Scottish independence would impact the defence of both countries and jeopardise Scotland’s future membership of Nato.
If the Scottish National Party gets its way over a second referendum on Scottish independence rather than prioritising pandemic recovery, it is fair to assume that the status of Faslane as the home of the UK’s nuclear deterrent will again be a significant campaign issue.
It would certainly be a difficult part of the fraught and protracted negotiations over the break up of the United Kingdom that would dominate domestic politics in the years after a Yes vote. The deliberations over Scexit have the potential to make Brexit look like a walk in the park.
At first glance, the SNP position on nuclear weapons post-independence seems simple and clear: the party’s spokespeople say there must be no nuclear weapons on Scottish soil in an independent Scotland. That means the rest of the UK would need to find an alternative berth for the Royal Navy’s fleet of Trident missile-carrying submarines with currently dock at Faslane.
This would be a mammoth undertaking with no alternative area so obviously combining Faslane’s advantages of having the deep water necessary to allow enormous deterrent submarines to exit safely, and the relative sparsity of population in the immediate surrounds to aid security.
Relocating the port would not even be half the challenge
The town which I represented in the House of Commons between 2010 and 2019 is often cited as an alternative location given its proud role serving the shipyard that constructs each submarine. Yet the approach to Barrow’s docks are so shallow that the launch of each vessel for its sea trials (currently the moment which the town bids farewell to the boat forever) has to be scheduled for particularly high tides that occur only around once a month.
Dredging of the scale needed to make passage easier might in theory be possible, but is likely to cost tens of billions of pounds and entail a level of disruption to the Cumbrian coastline and a number of communities that would be highly contested.
In short, in any normal world such colossally expensive upheaval would be a total non-starter. Yet relocating the port would not even be half the challenge. Crucially, moving the deterrent from Scotland also means finding a new location for the massive armaments depot at Coulport, next to Faslane, where the UK’s MK4 nuclear warheads are stored and loaded on to the Vanguard-class submarines before they go on patrol.
Understandably, no one wishes to countenance rebuilding such a sensitive facility in a relatively densely populated area like Barrow, or the great naval port of Devonport where the fleet is refuelled and refitted.
Consideration of these options did not progress much further than this fairly cursory level of speculation during the 2014 referendum and there may be little to generate more detail in the event that the vote is rerun.
A more pressing matter for debate if a second referendum does take priority over economic recovery is likely to be whether the nationalists’ pledge for nuclear upheaval is compatible with their stated aim to remain a member of Nato (or, rather, successfully applying to join the alliance as the organisation has previously insisted a newly independent Scotland would need to do).
The SNP points out that there are a number of non-nuclear states which have successfully joined Nato despite the organisation being based around the concept of collective nuclear security.
Yet no government has ever yet submitted an application to shelter under Nato’s nuclear umbrella while simultaneously describing that protection as “morally repugnant” and inflicting massive dislocation on the Trident system that underpins it.
The SNP’s defence policy has long been built around that basic contradiction and shows no sign of changing, leaving the pro-Scexit campaign ever more vulnerable as Russia and others increase the prospect of nuclear blackmail against the UK and its allies.
Lord Walney is a non-affiliated peer.
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