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
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Ken Livingstone says publicly what many are saying privately: tomorrow belongs to John McDonnell

The Shadow Chancellor has emerged as a frontrunner should another Labour leadership election happen. 

“It would be John.” Ken Livingstone, one of Jeremy Corbyn’s most vocal allies in the media, has said publicly what many are saying privately: if something does happen to Corbyn, or should he choose to step down, place your bets on John McDonnell. Livingstone, speaking to Russia Today, said that if Corbyn were "pushed under a bus", John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, would be the preferred candidate to replace him.

Even among the Labour leader’s allies, speculation is rife as to if the Islington North MP will lead the party into the 2020 election. Corbyn would be 71 in 2020 – the oldest candidate for Prime Minister since Clement Attlee lost the 1955 election aged 72.

While Corbyn is said to be enjoying the role at present, he still resents the intrusion of much of the press and dislikes many of the duties of the party leader. McDonnell, however, has impressed even some critics with his increasingly polished TV performances and has wowed a few sceptical donors. One big donor, who was thinking of pulling their money, confided that a one-on-one chat with the shadow chancellor had left them feeling much happier than a similar chat with Ed Miliband.

The issue of the succession is widely discussed on the left. For many, having waited decades to achieve a position of power, pinning their hopes on the health of one man would be unforgivably foolish. One historically-minded trade union official points out that Hugh Gaitskell, at 56, and John Smith, at 55, were 10 and 11 years younger than Corbyn when they died. In 1994, the right was ready and had two natural successors in the shape of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in place. In 1963, the right was unprepared and lost the leadership to Harold Wilson, from the party's centre. "If something happens, or he just decides to call it a day, [we have to make sure] it will be '94 not '63," they observed.

While McDonnell is just two years younger than Corbyn, his closest ally in politics and a close personal friend, he is seen by some as considerably more vigorous. His increasingly frequent outings on television have seen him emerge as one of the most adept media performers from the Labour left, and he has won internal plaudits for his recent tussles with George Osborne over the tax bill.

The left’s hopes of securing a non-Corbyn candidate on the ballot have been boosted in recent weeks. The parliamentary Labour party’s successful attempt to boot Steve Rotheram off the party’s ruling NEC, while superficially a victory for the party’s Corbynsceptics, revealed that the numbers are still there for a candidate of the left to make the ballot. 30 MPs voted to keep Rotheram in place, with many MPs from the left of the party, including McDonnell, Corbyn, Diane Abbott and John Trickett, abstaining.

The ballot threshold has risen due to a little-noticed rule change, agreed over the summer, to give members of the European Parliament equal rights with members of the Westminster Parliament. However, Labour’s MEPs are more leftwing, on the whole, than the party in Westminster . In addition, party members vote on the order that Labour MEPs appear on the party list, increasing (or decreasing) their chances of being re-elected, making them more likely to be susceptible to an organised campaign to secure a place for a leftwinger on the ballot.

That makes it – in the views of many key players – incredibly likely that the necessary 51 nominations to secure a place on the ballot are well within reach for the left, particularly if by-election selections in Ogmore, where the sitting MP, is standing down to run for the Welsh Assembly, and Sheffield Brightside, where Harry Harpham has died, return candidates from the party’s left.

McDonnell’s rivals on the left of the party are believed to have fallen short for one reason or another. Clive Lewis, who many party activists believe could provide Corbynism without the historical baggage of the man himself, is unlikely to be able to secure the nominations necessary to make the ballot.

Any left candidate’s route to the ballot paper runs through the 2015 intake, who are on the whole more leftwing than their predecessors. But Lewis has alienated many of his potential allies, with his antics in the 2015 intake’s WhatsApp group a sore point for many. “He has brought too much politics into it,” complained one MP who is also on the left of the party. (The group is usually used for blowing off steam and arranging social events.)

Lisa Nandy, who is from the soft left rather than the left of the party, is widely believed to be in the running also, despite her ruling out any leadership ambitions in a recent interview with the New Statesman.However, she would represent a break from the Corbynite approach, albeit a more leftwing one than Dan Jarvis or Hilary Benn.

Local party chairs in no doubt that the shadow chancellor is profiling should another leadership election arise. One constituency chair noted to the New Statesman that: “you could tell who was going for it [last time], because they were desperate to speak [at events]”. Tom Watson, Caroline Flint, Chuka Umunna, Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham and Liz Kendall all visited local parties across the country in preparation for their election bids in 2015.

Now, speaking to local party activists, four names are mentioned more than any other: Dan Jarvis, currently on the backbenches, but in whom the hopes – and the donations – of many who are disillusioned by the current leadership are invested, Gloria De Piero, who is touring the country as part of the party’s voter registration drive, her close ally Jon Ashworth, and John McDonnell.

Another close ally of Corbyn and McDonnell, who worked closely on the leadership election, is in no doubt that the shadow chancellor is gearing up for a run should the need arise.  “You remember when that nice Mr Watson went touring the country? Well, pay attention to John’s movements.”

As for his chances of success, McDonnell may well be even more popular among members than Corbyn himself. He is regularly at or near the top of LabourList's shadow cabinet rankings, and is frequently praised by members. Should he be able to secure the nominations to get on the ballot, an even bigger victory than that secured by Corbyn in September is not out of the question.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.