Is the Scottish public really opposed to nuclear weapons?

A new poll by Lord Ashcroft contradicts previous findings and shows that more than half of Scots believe Trident should be replaced.

That the Scottish public is opposed to British retention of nuclear weapons, not least due to their location on the Clyde, has long been regarded as one of the safest assumptions of the independence debate. A recent poll by Scottish CND found that 60 per cent of Scots oppose "the UK Government buying a new nuclear weapons system to replace Trident", with only 14 per cent in favour. Unilateral disarmament, it seems, remains one of Alex Salmond's strongest cards. 

But a new survey by Lord Ashcroft, the Tory donor turned prolific pollster, suggests a more complex picture. It found that more than half of Scots believe Trident should be replaced, either with an equally powerful system (20 per cent) or a cheaper but less powerful system (31 per cent). How to explain the discrepancy? In his commentary on ConservativeHome, Ashcroft points out that, unlike his survey, Scottish CND's poll failed to mention that Trident was coming to "the end of its useful life", creating the misleading impression that the UK government "wanted to spend billions on new nukes just for the hell of it." He also criticises the group's use of the figure £65bn, which includes the running costs for thirty years, a number three times greater than "the true replacement figure". This seems reasonable; polls asking how much the government should spend on the NHS or schools typically cite the annual cost, not the lifetime one. (Although to add to the complexity, the poll also found that only 37 per cent support the UK having nuclear weapons "in principle", with 48 per cent opposed.)

To further test Scottish public opinion, Ashcroft asked a question including the replacement figure ("The cost of replacing Trident has been estimated at £20 to £25 billion pounds, and, just to be sure no one would miss it, underlined it too), but found it made no significant difference to the outcome. In fact, the number of Scots in favour of replacing Trident marginally increases to 53 per cent, with 24 per cent supporting an equally powerful system and 29 per cent supporting a less powerful one.

By a slim majority, Scots also believe that Trident should continue to be based in Scotland (43-39 per cent) and, even in the event of independence, only half say that Britain should not be able to continue leasing the Faslane naval base. 

This morning, the SNP has responded by stating that it is "extremely confident that a majority of people in Scotland want to get rid of Trident nuclear weapons" and by accusing Ashcroft of displaying exactly the bias he complains of. "His question only included the procurement cost of a Trident replacement, when independent research shows that its lifetime costs will be nearly £100 billion," the party notes. 

But regardless of the SNP's objections, the poll shows how malleable public opinion is. Ashcroft's survey didn't (but could have) mentioned the jobs currently dependent on Trident (520), and the Better Together campaign certainly will. Whichever side succeeds in getting its figures accepted as the "true" or most significant ones is likely to triumph in this debate. 

The Trident Nuclear Submarine, HMS Victorious, on patrol off the west coast of Scotland. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.