HMS Vanguard sits in dock at Faslane Submarine base on the river Clyde. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

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.

Daily Mail
Show Hide image

Who "speaks for England" - and for that matter, what is "England"?

The Hollywood producer Sam Gold­wyn once demanded, “Let’s have some new clichés.” The Daily Mail, however, is always happiest with the old ones.

The Hollywood producer Sam Gold­wyn once demanded, “Let’s have some new clichés.” The Daily Mail, however, is always happiest with the old ones. It trotted out Leo Amery’s House of Commons call from September 1939, “Speak for England”, for the headline on a deranged leader that filled a picture-free front page on David Cameron’s “deal” to keep Britain in the EU.

Demands that somebody or other speak for England have followed thick and fast ever since Amery addressed his call to Labour’s Arthur Greenwood when Neville Chamberlain was still dithering over war with Hitler. Tory MPs shouted, “Speak for England!” when Michael Foot, the then Labour leader, rose in the Commons in 1982 after Argentina’s invasion of the Falklands. The Mail columnist Andrew Alexander called on Clare Short to “speak for England” over the Iraq War in 2003. “Can [Ed] Miliband speak for England?” Anthony Barnett asked in this very magazine in 2013. (Judging by the 2015 election result, one would say not.) “I speak for England,” claimed John Redwood last year. “Labour must speak for England,” countered Frank Field soon afterwards.

The Mail’s invocation of Amery was misconceived for two reasons. First, Amery wanted us to wage war in Europe in support of Hitler’s victims in Poland and elsewhere and in alliance with France, not to isolate ourselves from the continent. Second, “speak for England” in recent years has been used in support of “English votes for English laws”, following proposals for further devolution to Scotland. As the Mail was among the most adamant in demanding that Scots keep their noses out of English affairs, it’s a bit rich of it now to state “of course, by ‘England’. . . we mean the whole of the United Kingdom”.

 

EU immemorial

The Mail is also wrong in arguing that “we are at a crossroads in our island history”. The suggestion that the choice is between “submitting to a statist, unelected bureaucracy in Brussels” and reclaiming our ancient island liberties is pure nonsense. In the long run, withdrawing from the EU will make little difference. Levels of immigration will be determined, as they always have been, mainly by employers’ demands for labour and the difficulties of policing the borders of a country that has become a leading international transport hub. The terms on which we continue to trade with EU members will be determined largely by unelected bureaucrats in Brussels after discussions with unelected bureaucrats in London.

The British are bored by the EU and the interminable Westminster arguments. If voters support Brexit, it will probably be because they then expect to hear no more on the subject. They will be sadly mistaken. The withdrawal negotiations will take years, with the Farages and Duncan Smiths still foaming at the mouth, Cameron still claiming phoney victories and Angela Merkel, François Hollande and the dreaded Jean-Claude Juncker playing a bigger part in our lives than ever.

 

An empty cabinet

Meanwhile, one wonders what has become of Jeremy Corbyn or, indeed, the rest of the shadow cabinet. The Mail’s “speak for England” leader excoriated him for not mentioning “the Number One subject of the hour” at PM’s Questions but instead asking about a shortage of therapeutic radiographers in the NHS. In fact, the NHS’s problems – almost wholly caused by Tory “reforms” and spending cuts – would concern more people than does our future in the EU. But radiographers are hardly headline news, and Corbyn and his team seem unable to get anything into the nation’s “any other business”, never mind to the top of its agenda.

Public services deteriorate by the day, George Osborne’s fiscal plans look increasingly awry, and attempts to wring tax receipts out of big corporations appear hopelessly inadequate. Yet since Christmas I have hardly seen a shadow minister featured in the papers or spotted one on TV, except to say something about Trident, another subject that most voters don’t care about.

 

Incurable prose

According to the Guardian’s admirable but (let’s be honest) rather tedious series celeb­rating the NHS, a US health-care firm has advised investors that “privatisation of the UK marketplace . . . should create organic and de novo opportunities”. I have no idea what this means, though it sounds ominous. But I am quite certain I don’t want my local hospital or GP practice run by people who write prose like that.

 

Fashionable Foxes

My home-town football team, Leicester City, are normally so unfashionable that they’re not even fashionable in Leicester, where the smart set mostly watch the rugby union team Leicester Tigers. Even when they installed themselves near the top of the Premier League before Christmas, newspapers scarcely noticed them.

Now, with the Foxes five points clear at the top and 7-4 favourites for their first title, that mistake is corrected and the sports pages are running out of superlatives, a comparison with Barcelona being the most improbable. Even I, not a football enthusiast, have watched a few matches. If more football were played as Leicester play it – moving at speed towards their opponents’ goal rather than aimlessly weaving pretty patterns in midfield – I would watch the game more.

Nevertheless, I recall 1963, when Leicester headed the old First Division with five games to play. They picked up only one more point and finished fourth, nine points adrift of the league winners, Everton.

 

Gum unstuck

No, I don’t chew toothpaste to stop me smoking, as the last week’s column strangely suggested. I chew Nicorette gum, a reference written at some stage but somehow lost (probably by me) before it reached print.

Editor: The chief sub apologises for this mistake, which was hers

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle