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.

Emily Thornberry heckled by Labour MPs as tensions over Trident erupt

Shadow defence secretary's performance at PLP meeting described as "risible" and "cringeworthy". 

"There's no point trying to shout me down" shadow defence secretary Emily Thornberry declared midway through tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party meeting. Even by recent standards, the gathering was remarkably fractious (PLP chair John Cryer at one point threatened to halt it). Addressing MPs and peers for the first time since replacing Maria Eagle, Thornberry's performance did nothing to reassure Trident supporters. 

The Islington South MP, who voted against renewal in 2007, emphasised that the defence review would be "wide-ranging" and did not take a position on the nuclear question. She said she would listen to colleagues as well as taking "expert advice" and would soon visit the Barrow construction site. But MPs' anger was remorseless. Former shadow defence minister Kevan Jones was one of the first to emerge from Committee Room 14. "Waffly and incoherent, cringeworthy" was his verdict. Another Labour MP told me: "Risible. Appalling. She compared Trident to patrolling the skies with spitfires ... It was embarrassing." A party source said afterwards that Thornberry's "spitfire" remark was merely an observation on changing technology. 

But former first sea lord and security minister Alan West complained that she had failed to understand how the UK's nuclear submarines worked. "Physics, basic physics!" he cried as he left. Asked how the meeting went, Neil Kinnock, who as leader reversed Labour's unilateralist position in 1989, simply let out a belly laugh. Thornberry herself stoically insisted that it was "alright". But a shadow minister told me: "Emily just evidently hadn't put in the work required to be able to credibly address the PLP - totally humiliated. Not by the noise of the hecklers but by the silence of any defenders, no one speaking up for her." 

Labour has long awaited the Europe split currently unfolding among the Tories. But its divide on Trident is far worse. The majority of its MPs are opposed to unilateral disarmament and just seven of the shadow cabinet's 31 members share Jeremy Corbyn's position. While Labour MPs will be given a free vote when the Commons votes on Trident renewal later this year, the battle is on to determine the party's manifesto stance. 

Thornberry will tomorrow address the shadow cabinet and, for the first time this year, Corbyn will attend the next PLP meeting on 22 February. Both will have to contend with a divide which appears unbridgeable. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.