WITH Nicola Sturgeon pushing for another Scottish independence vote before the end of 2023, the future of Britain’s nuclear deterrent could become increasingly uncertain.
Last week, the SNP’s defence spokesman Stewart McDonald reiterated that atomic weapons from the Faslane submarine base in western Scotland will be removed ‘at pace’ if voters choose to leave the Union.
And Kirsten Oswald, SNP deputy leader at Westminster, said: ‘The notion of some kind of UK nuclear base remaining in Scotland when we are independent is an absolute non-starter, so that is neither realistic nor something that is going to happen.’
The UK’s nuclear fleet at the Faslane naval base on Gare Loch in the Clyde estuary, 30 miles from Glasgow, consists of four Vanguard-class submarines armed with Trident ballistic missiles. A missile storage base is located ten miles from Faslane at Coulport, and the sites employ a total of around 6,700.
At any given time, one of the Trident-armed submarines is on secret patrol somewhere in the world’s oceans, a strategy known as CASD – Continuous At Sea Deterrence. Each submarine is capable of launching an array of multiple atomic warheads at targets some 7,000 miles away.
One option mooted in the event of Scottish independence is for the Westminster government to try to lease back Faslane as a British Overseas Territory, but this would appear to be a non-starter. Failing that, the whole facility might be transferred to the Royal Navy base at Devonport, Plymouth, at a cost of billions, or even to France or the US.
The theory of nuclear deterrence, of course, is MAD – Mutually Assured Destruction – that an atomic war would be unwinnable, killing most of humanity and leaving the planet a burning, radioactive wasteland.
So does MAD work? Well, nuclear weapons have never been used in the 76 years since the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. And 59 years ago, the 1962 Cuban missile crisis was resolved without bloodshed by US President John Kennedy and Russian leader Nikita Khruschev, both realising they were staring over the edge of the atomic abyss.
(For a while, though, it was touch and go – I vividly remember as an 11-year-old in October 1962 being ushered into a school assembly where our grim-faced headmaster led prayers for peace).
Whether we like it or not, since 1945 atomic weapons have been a fact of life. They can’t be uninvented and will never go away unless every nuclear nation agrees to scrap them. As far as we can tell, that is not going to happen.
Many analysts believe that now the Cold War is deemed to be over, the best way of ensuring safety and security is not by increasing nuclear capability, but by boosting our conventional forces instead of running them down to ridiculously low levels.
However, with nuclear armaments in the hands of nine countries, including China, India, Pakistan and North Korea, and possibly being developed by Iran, the nightmare of 1962 – or worse – may one day be upon us again.
Would removing nuclear weapons from Faslane realistically make any difference to Scotland? The sight of the missiles leaving the base would delight the SNP and the protesters camped outside, but would undoubtedly dismay many other Scots.
And it is highly unlikely that Britain’s nuclear deterrent would be ditched. On a wider scale, Scotland’s gesture would make not one iota of difference to the world remaining nuclear-armed.
However, right now the whole situation is hypothetical. Nicola Sturgeon first has to get the go-ahead for an independence referendum – and then win it. If she loses, submarines will be setting off from Faslane on their secret patrols long after 2023.