HMS Vanguard sits in dock at Faslane Submarine base on the river Clyde. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Even if it wanted to, the SNP couldn’t use Trident as a bargaining chip

The nuclear weapons system is a red-line issue for the nationalist grassroots.

A few weeks ago, I watched Nicola Sturgeon speak at a Scottish CND rally in Glasgow’s George Square. There were, at most, 200 or 250 people in the crowd. As Scotland’s deputy first minister, Sturgeon must have had a dozen more important things to be doing. She certainly wasn’t winning any new converts to independence – most of the audience arrived sporting Yes campaign badges and placards. But she still delivered a pretty good speech – one she had obviously spent time preparing.

It is difficult to overstate the strength of the SNP’s opposition to nuclear weapons. The current generation of SNP leaders grew up marching against Polaris in the 1970s and its replacement, Trident, in the 1980s. For nationalists, the presence of nuclear submarines on the Clyde symbolises both Scotland’s lack of sovereignty and Westminster’s disregard for Scottish interests. Unilateralism is in the party’s blood. 

For this reason, I’m sceptical of claims the Scottish government plans to use Trident as "leverage" during the negotiations that would follow a Yes vote in September – although I can understand why it might be tempted to.

Trident would be a powerful bargaining chip. Westminster politicians cling to the nuclear deterrent because they fear Britain’s international status would be significantly downgraded without it. So it’s not hard to imagine the UK offering Scotland favourable terms of divorce (currency union, an equitable division of military assets etc.) in exchange for Trident remaining in Scottish waters until an alternative base could be built south of the border.

The prospect of such a deal has already been raised by one high-ranking UK cabinet minister and there are even some in the Yes camp (including, curiously, veteran leftist Jim Sillars) who think the Faslane and Coulport bases should be leased back to Britain after independence.

There is, however, little sign that the SNP leadership is open to compromise. When I talked to people at the top of the party in 2012 and 2013, they were vague about how long it would take for Trident to leave the Clyde. But their position seems to have firmed up since then. At the launch of the White Paper in November, Nicola Sturgeon was clear that she wanted Trident gone by the end of the first term of an independent parliament. More recently, in his now infamous GQ interview with Alistair Campbell, Alex Salmond warned Westminster not to "underestimate [his] determination" to get rid of Trident, while Angus Robertson, the SNP’s defence spokesman, has insisted the submarines will be out by 2020.  

It’s possible this is just rhetoric; an attempt by the SNP to stake out a negotiating position in advance of a Yes vote. This approach would fit with what one senior defence analyst (and opponent of independence) told me last summer: that the UK government could probably construct a new site for Trident within ten years – as opposed to the current official estimate of 15 to 25 – if the Scottish government was prepared to "accommodate" Westminster’s demands, such as leaving the warheads operational and under UK control.

But even a modest U-turn on Trident would incur heavy political costs. To begin with, it would undermine the SNP’s internal unity. Like their leaders, many nationalist activists have spent their lives marching against nuclear weapons and view Trident’s departure from Scotland as one of the main prizes of independence. Likewise, if Scots vote Yes in four months’ time, they will do so under the expectation that Trident will go. The SNP would lose a lot of credibility if it suddenly abandoned one of the key features of its independence prospectus.

There are other complicating factors. The SNP has earmarked Faslane as the site of a future Scottish naval base and wants to impose a constitutional ban on the stationing of nuclear weapon in Scottish territory. At the same time, the party supports Scottish membership of NATO and says Scotland will adhere to the Alliance’s "don’t ask, don’t tell" policy, which would (controversially) allow nuclear submarines to travel through Scottish waters without the explicit consent of the Scottish government.  

Nonetheless, Trident is a red-line issue for the nationalist grassroots, for much of the broader Yes campaign and, it seems, increasingly, for the SNP top brass. If there is a Yes vote, Westminster is going to face an almighty battle to keep Trident in Scotland beyond 2020. The UK government would be wise to start drawing up contingency plans, if it hasn’t done so already. 

James Maxwell is a Scottish political journalist. He is based between Scotland and London.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'll vote against bombing Isis - but my conscience is far from clear

Chi Onwurah lays out why she'll be voting against British airstrikes in Syria.

I have spent much of the weekend considering how I will vote on the question of whether the UK should extend airstrikes against Daesh/Isis from Iraq to Syria, seeking out and weighing the evidence and the risks.

My constituents have written, emailed, tweeted, facebooked or stopped me in the street to share their thoughts. Most recognised what a difficult and complex decision it is. When I was selected to be the Labour candidate for Newcastle Central I was asked what I thought would be the hardest part of being an MP.

I said it would be this.

I am not a pacifist, I believe our country is worth defending and our values worth fighting for. But the decision to send British Armed Forces into action is, rightly, a heavy responsibility.

For me it comes down to two key questions. The security of British citizens, and the avoidance of civilian casualties. These are separate operational and moral questions but they are linked in that it is civilian casualties which help fuel the Daesh ideology that we cannot respect and value the lives of those who do not believe as we do. There is also the important question of solidarity with the French in the wake of their grievous and devastating loss; I shall come to that later.

I listened very carefully to the Prime Minister as he set out the case for airstrikes on Thursday and I share his view that Daesh represents a real threat to UK citizens. However he did not convince me that UK airstrikes at this time would materially reduce that threat. The Prime Minister was clear that Daesh cannot be defeated from the air. The situation in Syria is complex and factionalised, with many state and non-state actors who may be enemies of our enemy and yet not our friend. The Prime Minister claimed there were 70,000 ground troops in the moderate Free Syrian Army but many experts dispute that number and the evidence does not convince me that they are in a position to lead an effective ground campaign. Bombs alone will not prevent Daesh obtaining money, arms and more recruits or launching attacks on the UK. The Prime Minister did not set out how we would do that, his was not a plan for security and peace in Syria with airstrikes a necessary support to it, but a plan to bomb Syria, with peace and security cited in support of it. That is not good enough for me.

Daesh are using civilian population as human shields. Syrians in exile speak of the impossibility of targeting the terrorists without hitting innocent bystanders. I fear that bombing Raqqa to eliminate Daesh may be like bombing Gaza to eliminate Hamas – hugely costly in terms of the civilian population and ultimately ineffectual.

Yet the evil that Daesh perpetrate demands a response. President Hollande has called on us to join with French forces. I lived in Paris for three years, I spent time in just about every location that was attacked two weeks ago, I have many friends living in Paris now, I believe the French are our friends and allies and we should stand and act in solidarity with them, and all those who have suffered in Mali, Kenya, Nigeria, Lebanon, Tunisia and around the world.

But there are other ways to act as well as airstrikes. Britain is the only G7 country to meet its international development commitments, we are already one of the biggest humanitarian contributors to stemming the Syrian crisis, we can do more not only in terms of supporting refugees but helping those still in Syria, whether living in fear of Daesh or Assad. We can show the world that our response is to build rather than bomb. The Prime Minister argues that without taking part in the bombing we will not have a place at the table for the reconstruction. I would think our allies would be reluctant to overlook our financial commitment.

We can also do more to cut off Daesh funding, targeting their oil wells, their revenues, their customers and their suppliers. This may not be as immediately satisfying as bombing the terrorists but it is a more effective means of strangling them.

The vast majority of the constituents who contacted me were against airstrikes. I agree with them for the reasons I set out above. I should say that I have had no experience of bullying or attempts at intimidation in reaching this decision, Newcastle Central is too friendly, frank, comradely and Geordie a constituency for that. But some have suggested that I should vote against airstrikes to ensure a “clear conscience” ’. This is not the case. There will be more killings and innocent deaths whether there are UK airstrikes or not, and we will all bear a portion of responsibility for them.

A version of this article was originally sent to Chi Onwurah's constituents, and can be read here