The 365 ways to say No

Observations on Trident

On Saturday, 24 February, tens of thousands of people will march through London and Glasgow in co-ordinated "No Trident" demonstrations, ahead of the Commons vote in March on replacing Trident. The same day, the Defence Secretary Des Browne will visit the west coast of Scotland to hold his own private rally. His mission is to drum up support. Labour MPs, all of whom have been invited, will be shown around HM Naval Base Clyde at Faslane, home to Britain's nuclear deterrent, and then taken for a ride on a Trident submarine.

But MPs who accept, hoping for a dash of excitement, might be disappointed. I visited Faslane last week and, aside from the huge black Trident submarine docked next to the ship lift, the base resembles nothing so much as a grey industrial site.

There are no signs inside the base that anyone fears for their future. Work is under way on a £125m accommodation block and a £135m jetty for the new Astute class attack submarines which will be delivered next year. My guides are careful to avoid contentious issues. I ask who the missiles point at. "Nobody." So who is the enemy? "We don't have an enemy. It's a deterrent."

For anti-Trident protesters, this is the front line. Resistance is focused at Faslane Peace Camp, a ramshackle collection of brightly painted caravans and disused buses wedged at the side of the road that leads to the base. Since its establishment in 1982, the peace camp has been the hub for anti-Trident protests in the area and an experiment in communal living. There are currently only ten (mostly dreadlocked) residents living at the camp, but they provide accommodation and vital know-how to visiting activists.

Recently, activity at the camp has been revitalised by Faslane 365, a one-year continuous peaceful blockade of the Trident base, which was launched on 1 October 2006.

"When I arrived a few months ago, the place was in a real mess," says Angie Zelter, the founder of Faslane 365. "People weren't focused on peace issues. It was more a place to live." Faslane 365 uses its website (faslane365.org) and online rota to organise blockade groups. Though there haven't been enough volunteers to maintain the blockade every day, it has succeeded in drawing protesters from ten countries in all age groups.

The blockades, when they happen, are heavily policed. The 600 MoD police stationed at Faslane have been given the painstaking task of cutting through the various "lock-on" devices used by protesters to attach themselves to improvised barricades, while local Strathclyde police handle the arrests.

"The policing is very good," says Zelter. "They've been policing demos here for 25 years."

The cost of policing has averaged £1.75m a month since Faslane 365 began. So far, more than 500 arrests have been made, but to avoid clogging up local courts, soaking up public funds and attracting publicity, fewer than 25 protesters have been prosecuted.

The inhabitants of the small neighbouring town of Helensburgh (pop: 15,000) are unsympathetic. "Those protesters are a pain in the neck," says Christopher Craven, a student from Helensburgh. "I got stuck for two hours on my way home because they were blocking the roads."

The first day I visited the peace camp, someone dropped off two bags of food, but this is unusual. To cause maximum disruption, the blockades are timed to coincide with the arrival and departure of Faslane workers. This means they also coincide with morning and afternoon rush hours, blocking traffic and exasperating the locals.

Jane Tallents, a Faslane 365 organiser, is unapologetic: "People want to carry on as if it's a spaghetti factory up the road. They just don't want to think about it."

But in Helensburgh, local concerns override moral arguments. "If Trident goes, this place becomes a ghost town. It's as simple as that," says John Kerr, a local taxi driver. It is a common sentiment: the base pumps £250m each year into the Scottish economy through contracts and wages. It employs 6,500 personnel and supports 3,000 local jobs indirectly. "If you want to see what will happen to Helensburgh, just look at Holy Loch," says Kerr.

Holy Loch, a short distance from Faslane, was the site of a US naval base. In 1991, just before the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US announced that it was pulling out. The sudden withdrawal devastated the neighbouring town, Dunoon. Eight-hundred people lost their jobs, property prices plummeted when 500 houses were released on to the market, and hotel owners and taxi drivers went out of business. Dunoon has never recovered.

The comparison is instructive but imprecise. Faslane would not shut if Trident were scrapped; it is also a base for conventional vessels and would stay open in a reduced capacity. In addition, Helensburgh is in the Glasgow commuting belt and, situated on the edge of protected countryside, enjoys the highest property prices outside Edinburgh.

Losing Trident would be a heavy blow to Helensburgh and the surrounding area, but its future could be secured by investing a fraction of the £65bn that Trident will cost over its 30 years of service.

The residents of Faslane Peace Camp and the Faslane 365 protesters are not, as the inhabitants of Helensburgh like to think, just a loony fringe. They represent a silent majority.

Anna-Linnea Rundberg arrived from Finland: "I came to Scotland because it is the weak link in the nuclear chain. The majority of Scots are against nuclear weapons," she says, referring to a recent CND poll showing that 75 per cent of Scots claimed to be against replacing Trident. "There's a real opportunity to make a difference here."