Scottish independence could leave UK nuclear weapons homeless

By James McKeon | August 20, 2014


On September 18, the residents of Scotland will determine whether to remain in the United Kingdom or become independent for the first time since 1707. On the surface, this referendum seems to only affect those living in the United Kingdom, but a more detailed look reveals an issue of significant international importance—the future of Great Britain’s nuclear deterrent.

The Scottish independence debate has been fiercely fought on both sides since First Minister of Scotland Alex Salmond and his Scottish National Party won the Scottish Parliamentary elections in 2011 on a platform that promised to hold an independence referendum. Accepting the democratic legitimacy of the election, British Prime Minister David Cameron and his government said they would allow the referendum to occur, pledging to respect the vote regardless of outcome.

Cameron and his Conservative Party are opposed to Scottish independence, as are the two other major UK political parties, Labor and the Liberal Democrats. The three political parties formed a coalition—Better Together—that is united in its opposition to Scottish independence, even though they have divergent views on other issues. Another policy all three parties agree upon, albeit with extreme hesitance from the Liberal Democrats, is the need for a nuclear deterrent in Britain. This is where the independence vote gets tricky.

Since the mid-1990s, the UK Trident program has been the only nuclear deterrent in Britain’s arsenal and its successor is scheduled to enter service in 2028. Here’s the issue: All active Vanguard submarines and accompanying Trident nuclear weapons are stationed at Her Majesty’s Naval Base Clyde in Scotland. The Scottish government, led by Salmond, has pledged to safely remove and permanently ban nuclear weapons from Scottish territory within the first term of a newly independent parliament.

To be sure, the polls are not currently in favor of independence. It could happen, though, and if it does, Scotland will remove Trident nuclear weapons that have no destination in what will remain of the United Kingdom. The UK government and Ministry of Defence have repeatedly argued that they believe Scots will vote against independence, and thus Britain is not preparing for the possibility of Scottish disarmament. But it is risking a tricky situation: unilateral disarmament of the British Isles.

In addition to rejecting a backup plan for independence, the Ministry of Defence has said that removing Trident to the English coast would be extremely difficult and abhorrently costly. Great Britain has thus staked out its position as having no fallback, arguing that even if one did exist, it would be a logistical and financial nightmare. This would be all well and good—if the Scottish government was not especially clear that it will remove the weapons as quickly and safely as possible after independence. With Scotland at that point an independent state, the remaining United Kingdom would have no legal authority to prevent this from happening.

If moving Trident nuclear weapons to England would be that much of an ordeal, only one realistic alternative exists. That would be to place them in Kings Bay, Georgia, in the United States, where Britain already stores and maintains some nuclear warheads, thereby disarming the British Isles altogether. But this situation wouldn’t really be necessary. Multiple analysts—including Malcolm Chalmers of the respected think tank the Royal United Services Institute and Francis Tusa of the newsletter Defence Analysis—have suggested that the entire Trident system could be moved to England relatively quickly and at an affordable cost. So why is the Ministry of Defence arguing that any move would be catastrophic? The answer is simple: politics.

The UK Government is not encouraging the Ministry of Defence to acknowledge or publish a backup plan for independence because it is sticking with its policy of “no pre-negotiations.” This might be a good line for those opposed to the Scottish National Party, but talking points are not enough for the severity of any situation involving nuclear weapons. It is almost laughable that the government of one of the most powerful nations on Earth is trying to dismiss its opposition by keeping the fate of some of the most powerful weapons on Earth uncertain.

Right now, the choice is clear. Britain must stop playing games and acknowledge or publish a backup plan for its Scotland-based nuclear weapons, even if it has to be heavily redacted for national security purposes. Most of the independence debate has been caught up in political maneuvering. But the UK government must stop using nuclear weapons as political pawns. 

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