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9 September 2021

Scottish independence would force Britain to confront its post-imperial decline

Those who want the best for Britain should see Scotland’s anti-nuclear stance not as a moral failing, but as a model worth following.

By Rory Scothorne

In Vigil, the BBC’s new detective programme, a Trident submarine is beset by threats on all sides. Police Scotland is investigating the mysterious death of a crew member, ramping up tensions between Holyrood and the Ministry of Defence. That crew member may have been leaking information to anti-nuclear activists, who think they’ve discovered a covered-up incident that destroyed a trawler and killed its crew. And then there are the strange on-board outages and mysterious signals that suggest the vessel is being tailed by another, unseen and untraceable. 

The real-life Trident fleet is also in choppier political waters than usual, after a flurry of stories about the fate of British nuclear weapons should Scotland become independent. Last week, the Financial Times revealed that the UK government has contingency plans to move the Scottish submarine base elsewhere in Britain, or even to the US or France, should it be expelled from the current site at Faslane. The independence movement itself is trying to ramp up the pressure. A motion to the SNP’s forthcoming conference calls for nuclear weapons to be removed from Scotland within three years of independence, while independence supporters demonstrated outside the gates of Faslane at the end of last month.

This kind of sustained visibility is not how Trident is supposed to operate. In both political and military terms, it operates best out of sight, accepted as an invisible threat by politicians of all stripes – recall the red-faced outrage directed at Jeremy Corbyn for wavering on whether or not he would destroy a city at the touch of a button. Yet Corbyn’s ultimate fate – condemned by the public for his lack of patriotism – suggests that the consequences of questioning Trident are politically ambiguous at best. Last week, Stephen Bush wrote in the New Statesman that UK contingency planning “might be a problem for the cause of Scottish independence, if the consequence is a series of big stories about disruptive change and the costs of a break-up. But it equally might help the cause of Scottish independence if the combined effect is to make separation seem like a matter of when, not if.”

But would Scottish independence really help with disarmament? Writing in the Times, Kenny Farquharson argued that removing Trident from Scotland to another location was mere “nuclear nimbyism”, the political equivalent of fly-tipping: “It can only be counted as ‘getting rid’ of nuclear weapons,’’ he wrote, “if your moral world ends at the Scotland-England border.”

The most likely alternative locations for Trident are not France or the US, but Devonport in England or Milford Haven in Wales. Yet it would be hard for the UK government to move its nuclear arsenal to either without enthusiastic resistance from local populations. 

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Brian Jones, vice-chair of CND Cymru, tells me that similar proposals during the last Scottish independence referendum campaign received a “negative response across the board” in Wales. Although Carwyn Jones, Wales’s first minister at the time, welcomed the prospect of a Trident base on the Welsh coast, he was out of step with both his party and the wider public. When, in 2012, CND Cymru rallied outside the Welsh Assembly (now the Senedd Cymru) under the banner of “Nuclear Weapons – Not in Wales – Not Anywhere”, one of the speakers was the Labour assembly member Mark Drakeford, who replaced Jones as first minister in 2018. 

Locating Trident in the south-west of England would not be much easier. Like Wales, the region has an experienced anti-nuclear movement, kept sharp by years spent protesting against the Hinkley Point nuclear plant, the arms trade and other military bases. Farquharson’s implication that only Scotland can do “nuclear nimbyism” while other places accept their fate overlooks the importance of localist sentiment to anti-nuclear politics across the UK. Indeed, the prospect of Trident moving elsewhere in the UK could enliven the anti-nuclear movement nationwide.

“What [it] would undoubtedly do,” Brian Jones tells me, “is reopen the debate on a much wider scale across England and Wales [and] raise the level of debate back to how it was in the 1980s.” Not only would it “reinvigorate the Welsh movement” but it could “completely stir up the status quo” across the rest of the UK. 

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If the UK opted for France or the US instead, it would surely involve a degree of national embarrassment, as a proud world power was sent begging to foreigners to look after our best weapons because we couldn’t do it ourselves. That would fit with a wider – and in my view, the most convincing – case for independence. The UK has already endured two foreign policy humiliations in recent years in the shape of Brexit and the bungled withdrawal from Afghanistan. Reflecting recently on the latter debacle, Tony Blair wrote that “we are at risk of relegation to the second division of global powers”, reflecting wider anxiety across the two main parties about Britain’s helplessness in the face of Joe Biden’s determination to withdraw his troops. But Britain is not “at risk” of such relegation – that helplessness demonstrates that we are already in the second division. By stripping the UK of a third of its landmass and forcing its nuclear “deterrent” into crisis, Scottish independence would help to hammer home the message that Britannia does not, and cannot, rule the waves.

Such a heavy dose of realism would be a good thing for almost everybody who lives here, as well as those foreign populations subjected to the country’s “humanitarian” expeditions. For a century now, the UK’s domestic politics have been hamstrung by international overexertion, as the decline from global empire to just another state has been covered up with a succession of ludicrously expensive post-imperial coping mechanisms: not just sinking money into military adventurism and nuclear weapons, but sacrificing domestic industry on the altar of sterling and international finance.

Britain’s global status anxiety has tragically undermined and overshadowed those achievements that the country could have been proud of, from full employment and the welfare state to a thriving artistic and cultural infrastructure. In his 1989 study of CND, the sociologist John Mattausch identified what he called a “rent” in the British state between “Beveridge and the bomb”. The CND activists he studied sought to prioritise welfare over warfare, settling for domestic achievements over international power. Scottish nationalism has also been forged through this conflict within British statecraft. It has succeeded by claiming to defend all of Britain’s redeeming features – solidaristic welfare, generously funded arts and culture, even principled and benevolent technocrats – against the country’s worst instincts. Those who want the best for Britain should see Scotland’s “nuclear nimbyism” not as a moral failing, but a model worth following.