Coffee House

Nuclear weapons, Scotland and the future of the United Kingdom

5 April 2013

10:47 AM

5 April 2013

10:47 AM

David Cameron – who, in case you’d forgotten, leads the Conservative and Unionist Party – made a rare visit to Scotland yesterday. He spoke about defence. His message was clear: an independent Scotland could not expect to win defence contracts from what remains of the United Kingdom. Jobs and expertise, therefore, would be lost. Vote no.

This is, as Iain Martin notes, smart politics. The Nationalists are weakest on those briefs which are the central functions of a nation state: defence, foreign policy and welfare. Cameron, as the British Prime Minister, should make more of this natural advantage. (Incidentally, Alex Massie has an excellent account of the referendum battle. It’s by far and away the best guide to the subject.)

Cameron’s impressive argument was, however, not without fault. He explained how the Union benefited Scotland and vice versa; but there was rather more of the former than the latter. And he sailed in dark waters when talking of the independent nuclear deterrent and its upgrade.


The Scottish National Party has made nuclear disarmament a badge of honour. The Labour Party is no longer synonymous with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Johann Lamont, leader of Scottish Labour, has resisted pressure from the SNP to drop Labour’s (admittedly lukewarm) support for nuclear weapons. The Labour Party is a big deal in Scotland, perhaps the biggest deal. A curious assumption seems to underlie much of the independence debate: that Scotland would elect the SNP. This is not a foregone conclusion, and that throws doubt on the nuclear question. It may be that a Labour government in Scotland looks at the costs of the deterrent and draws the obvious conclusion; but it is equally possible that the United Kingdom and an independent Scotland would reach agreement on a shared nuclear deterrent. Such an arrangement would benefit the UK as well as Scotland: I’m told that it would be difficult and expensive to construct new facilities outside Scotland to service the independent deterrent, especially a like-for-like replacement of Trident. This is something that Unionists might stress more often; another example of Scotland being ‘very good’ for the Union.

Much of this debate turns on the unresolved matter of upgrading Trident. Cameron has argued that dangers, such as those posed by North Korea, make independent nuclear arms a necessity. NATO is unequivocal: Anders Foch Rasmussen has said that Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent has made the world a safer and more prosperous place. We can assume that he wants such security to continue. Scottish independence would, obviously, affect that balance of power, and not just in terms of nuclear security.

The SNP now favour membership of NATO. This piece in this morning’s Herald says that it is not clear that NATO would welcome Scotland without the bomb. The Herald is surely overstating that point; but it doesn’t seem unreasonable to suggest that NATO would insist on Scotland maintaining a substantial conventional defence establishment, which newly independent Scotland may not be able to provide. Recent military ventures in Libya and Mali suggest that the dynamics of NATO have changed because the United States has shifted its attentions to the Far East. There are greater demands on European powers, and in a restrained spending environment. In the context of Scottish independence, the UK and Scotland could strike a deal similar to that which exists between Britain and France. Or, better still, this might be turned into an argument in favour of preserving the Union because both parties’ defence capabilities and standing within NATO (never mind the world) would be weakened by secession.

The British Prime Minister has made these points before; but he could make them more often and much more loudly.

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Show comments
  • soccerdoc

    This article is so full of non-seqs, often ill-informed that its hard to know where to start, so lets go the beginning

    1. an independent Scotland could not expect to win defence work. Wrong on two counts. First of all BAE has been clear that Portsmouth on its own couldnt build warships – not big enough, so some of the work, according to BAE would have to be done in Glasgow. They did admittedly suggest that in the event of independence that one of the linked Glasgow yards – Scotstoun and Govan – would close (probably the latter). This is a lilttle odd since they are currently looking at shrinking their warship capacity by closing (or mothballing) one of their three yards (Portsmouth or one of the two Glasgow yards), but that given the flexibility that Scotstoun and Govan offer (being only a couple of miles apart) it would probably be Portsmouth that would be closed/ mothballed. Secondly because the EU 2009 Directive on defence and security purchasing extends normal EU competition rules to defence and security contracts (eg warship construction). Thus policies like “we dont build warships abroad” will no longer be sustainable, and as Hammond himself has observed where the ships are built is a commercial decision for BAE.

    2. secondly re support for Trident and its replacement, a recent poll found that even among those intending to vote No in 2014 that 75% were against Trident, its replacement and its location in Scotland. Among those planning to vote Yes, the figure was even higher. A Scottish nuclear deterrent (or even sharing one) would be politically the kiss of death in Scotland for any political party

    3. given that on a good day (for them) North Korea might get a missile as far as Japan, what threat do they pose to the UK and how would Trident or a replacement assist in protecting us?

    4. would Nato welcome an independent Scotland without the bomb? I would agree NATO would be much happier if it were with the bomb, but what is the evidence that an independent Scotland would not be welcome without it? Lets not forget that the purpose of independence is so that we Scots are able to exercise more influence on our own affairs, and not only is there considerable opposition to an independent Scotland having its own wmd, but that any other state should be able to store such weapons in Scotland. Opposition in Scotland to involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan suggests that such foreign adventures will not find support either in the future. NATO (or should that be US) may have valued the UK in such adventures, and if rUK wishes to continue with that policy then it would be a decision for rUK, but I think it would be wisest to include Scotland out.

    Lastly, where I would agree with Mr Blackburn is in his conclusion that “The British Prime Minister has made these points before; but he could make them more often and much more loudly.” – great idea as the effect on a Yes vote can only be positive.

  • dercavalier

    Another load of waffle from an Englishman (presumably) who knows sweet FA about Scotland.

  • NiceTeaParty

    Déjà Vu ? We used to talk seriously about how absolutely vital the colonies were for England’s defences and how, without India, Aden, Malta et al, we would be left defenceless. To treat the Scottish Nation as, at best, a protectorate or naval base not only insults Scotland but insults our own intelligence. Outside the UK are we really saying the Scots would let the side down and become an unfriendly foreign power ?

  • Makroon

    Scots shouldn’t feel bad about Cameron’s “rare” visit – he must be the least travelled PM since Home. He only seems to like trips to Euroland.

    David Blackburn says we shouldn’t take a Nats victory for granted, post independence.
    Nonsense. IF there is a vote for independence, it will be a tremendous victory for Salmond (no other party backs it), and will show that he has convinced Scots to sign up.
    He would be “the father of the nation”, with a guaranteed long rule.

    Pretty much like Eamon DeValera – and probably with the same dire results for Scotland.

    • soccerdoc

      To contrast the situation in Scotland with that of Ireland almost a hundred years ago is historically illiterate. Would Makroon like to tell me when one shot has been fired due to Scottish independence? However more importantly, while a yes vote would no doubt seal Salmond’s place in Scottish history, he is already on record as saying that he would resign shortly afterwards whichever way the vote goes. Of course a Yes vote might change his mind, but even then one problem for the SNP is that they are politically a wide church with individuals who normally woudnt want to be seen dead with each other united by independence. When/if that is achieved then the rationale for the SNP disappears, and I would reckon that within two elections there would have been at least two splits in the party.

      • dercavalier

        “… historically illiterate…”
        That is gobbledegook. Could we please have a translation into English, ie, if that is your native language.

        And the rest of your comment is nonsense. Or as you might say “… nonsensically mathematical …”

        • soccerdoc

          historically – With reference to past events.
          illiterate – unlettered – ignorant – uneducated – unlearned

          Clear enough now?

          Or how about what meaningful parallels are there between the achievement of Irish independence and the Scottish referendum?

          Or why dont you talk to a few SNP members (of which I am not one btw) and ask them of what it is that holds them together.

          If you dont agree with the point, that’s fine, but you know abuse (Insulting or coarse language) is really no substitute for reasoned argument.

          • dercavalier

            I’m sorry soccerdoc I wasn’t abusing you, merely taking the piss because I thought you were one of THEM. But you appear to be one of US. However you do have a quaint way with words.

            In the event of Independence AS has said he may resign afterwards but I am sure it would not be until after an ‘Official Independence Day’. All politicians like their names in lights. And I am fairly sure that the SNP would be given a long reign afterwards too because … there is no alternative.

            • soccerdoc

              As things stand just now, you are dead right – no alternative really. However one of the things that I think would be interesting should there be a yes vote is how the Unionist parties would react. A continuing link to London would be the kiss of death. On the other hand there could well be a continuing relationship, or a “fraternal relationship” as it would be called in the Labour Party. But, while the ideas will no doubt be “similar” (at least for a while) they will have to be applied in a Scottish context (eg the financial services industry will loom less large and the oil industry, or whisky business more so) and to appeal to a Scottish electorate in a focused way, rather than adapting themes designed to attract “middle England”. Those that find it difficult/ impossible to do this (and I would actually suspect Labour more than any of the others – Murdo Fraser has already broken cover for the Tories) will be leaving a gap in the Scottish political spectrum which I would hope might be filled by wholly new political movements.

              One thing I am pretty sure of though is that the SNP will split/ fragment (however you put it). This is not to say that there wont be an ongoing SNP, but I would expect members (perhaps even prominent ones) to leave over the first 5-10 years. For instance the Tory Party had the majority of MPs in Scotland just over 50 years ago. OK things change, but where did that vote go? Some of it must have gone to the SNP, and that vote might find its way back to the sort of party that Murdo Fraser was talking about when he ran as leader. I suspect that a future SNP will be sort of populist, slightly left of centre, but to the extent it loses votes when independence ceases to be the imperative, it will have to make common cause with other parties – perhaps a Scottish LIberal Democrat Party, or a growing Green Party. It will be interesting – that is the one sure thing imo.

  • Hookeslaw

    Scotland’s defence capabilities would be non existent following secession.
    RumpUK would probably run a smaller army following secession and if that meant we would concentrate more on Special Forces it would be no great bad thing.

  • Hookeslaw

    Doesn’t NATO require a minimum %age of GDP on defence?
    If we have an independent Scotland(we won’t) then this is good news for the south west and north east I would have thought – in terms of our navy. it ought to be good news for English warship building.

    Scotland is 5 million out of 62 million. Cameron spends as much time there as is right compared to Lancashire.

    What is to stop you making these sensible points about the union more often and more loudly?

    • Starfish

      NATO members agreed to spend a minimum of 2% of GDP as I recall

      Quite why the SNP assumes that various international organisations would want an independent Scotland as a member defeats me

      • Drew Edward

        It’s quite simple. By sheer luck of geography Scotland is in a strategically important part of the North Atlantic not far from where the Russians are keen to exploit the various trade routes and oil and gas reserves in the Arctic circle.

        If NATO and the EU both declined Scotland membership they would be gently reminded that Russia would love to have military and naval access and bases in North West Europe and would they like access to Scottish ports? (partly because NATO has it’s own bases and troops stationed in the former Eastern bloc along Russia’s border, an ongoing source of tension between NATO and Russia).

        You may think this far fetched but geo-politics is a complex business (as we are currently seeing with North Korea) During the Cod Wars when Iceland threatened to close the NATO base on the island, the Americans panicked and told the UK to thrash out a deal, subsequently the British lost plenty of fishing rights as a result.

        • Starfish

          not really

          it is a long way from the arctic circle

          30 years ago with the soviet union threatening Norway and reinforcement convoys i might have agreed but russian focus is within the arctic ocean and in the pacific – just look at what is left of the northern fleet

          Russian bases in Scotland would be hugely vulnerable to interdiction – even if the population was ostensibly friendly, and I don’t believe such an offer would help Scotland become a member of the EU

      • dercavalier

        Oil, oil, oil, oil…….. need I go on.

        • the viceroy’s gin

          No, you don’t have to go on… but the Chinese will if you don’t.

  • Russell

    Cameron is as wrong about Scotland remaining in the UK as he is the UK remaining in the EU.
    He needs to free England from the jocks and their chums in the EU. Let’s have all those scotch defence jobs relocated from jockland to England and the vacancies filled with English people not EU migrants.

    • dercavalier

      Mingerland hasn’t got anywhere to put nuclear weapons. And the Ingers haven’t a clue how to run a country. Londonistan needs the immigrants because they are the only ones who work. Cameron Osborne? Do me a favour.

  • Wilhelm

    The government tells us that we need nuclear weapons to defend the country from invasion. Yet the same government, both labour and tory are bringing in millions of immigrants / invaders into the country, thus changing the nation from within. They may not be wearing uniforms but it’s still an invasion, is it not ?

    Frank Field wants the indigenous British to go to citizenship classes to make them feel British ! How insulting.

    • Wilhelm

      So why do we have nuclear weapons then ?

  • In2minds

    “I’m told that it would be extremely difficult and expensive to construct
    new facilities outside Scotland to service the independent deterrent” –

    Yet we are we are going to build HS2!

    • Hookeslaw

      There is no reason to not build facilities outside of Scotland.
      The USA will have to if an independent Scotland closed Holy Loch.

      • Starfish

        USN left Holy Loch over a decade ago

      • Mary Livingstone

        Holy Loch has been closed for 20 years.

    • Starfish

      Nuclear facilities are far more expensive and difficult than HS2 due to the nuclear regulatory regime

  • allymax bruce

    David, dear-o-dear; what a load of, …. scaremongering!
    First of all, the Herald is completely wrong; it’s only a scaremongering MSM outlet!
    Next, the USA, (practically NATO), has alreay said it has no beef in whether Scotland becomes indpendent; USA will support an Independent Scotland regardless!
    Moreover, Alex Massie’s article is shamelessly bias, horrendously incorrect, and full of nefarious assumptions; Massie’s article is only more scaremongering!
    I’m disappointed at the MSM’s only road to ‘cover’ Scotland’s coming independence; you’ll all look really stupid when Scotland votes ‘Yes’ next year!

    • Colonel Mustard

      Yes, everybody loves Scotland, even Mel Gibson. Good luck to you and fare thee well.

      It will be rather fun having our own little North Korea glowering across the border.

      • dercavalier

        WE are the ones who are going to be rich like S Korea. YOU are the ones who are going to vanish up your own asshole very soon to become like N Korea. And you are already glowering at us from across the border

  • telemachus

    He should be careful
    Except for those whose jobs depend the Scots are anti nuclear and further there is a mentality of the forces being controlled by the English
    Cameron should keep out of the independence debate and Leave the victory to Darling who they trust

    • Archimedes

      In case you haven’t realised, Cameron, unlike Darling, is the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, and so should wade into any debate that concerns the United Kingdom, regardless of whatever pithy views some Scots hold about Tories.

      • telemachus

        Practicalities dear chap
        We need to keep the UK together
        Do not let Cameron, Clegg or Miliband turn them off

        • Archimedes

          No, the practicality is that, if Scotland cannot bear to hear the Prime Minister, then Scotland cannot remain a part of the union for very long.

      • allymax bruce

        Well! Cam’ ‘retreated’ from a tv debate with Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond, on Scotland’s independence!
        I like David Cameron, but he makes some silly gaffes; saying we are safer with nukes, when none have ever been fired, and only last year Japan has been ravaged from a nuclear fall-out, makes David look silly.
        Moreover, both Scotland & England have ‘tied’ interests; and the replacement of Trident, and the maintaining of the Nuke’ is one of those ‘tied’ interests. We just won’t have them in Scotland, that’s all !

        • Archimedes

          “I like David Cameron, but he makes some silly gaffes; saying we are safer with nukes, when none have ever been fired”

          The whole point of having nuclear weapons is to make sure that they are not used by any country — this is why we call it a nuclear deterrent.

          • allymax bruce

            Hmm, quite a philosophical ‘catch 22’ there, Archimedes.
            My argument is still more potent though, because, as Einstein argues in his theorizing on ‘The Existence/Presence of God’, we cannot assume the presence of dark, by assuming the absence of light!

        • Hookeslaw

          Japan was ravaged by a tidal wave, not nukes.

    • BenjaminUnbotton

      And you think people in Scotland trust Darling?
      I have heard many a weird thing in this independence debate, but that has to take the gold medal.

      • telemachus

        He is a straight down the line Scot
        He is trusted
        He will deliver
        If Cameron keeps his nose out

    • Drew Edward

      Many people forget Scotland was the first part of the UK to vote Labour out of office at the 2007 Scottish elections, despite Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling leading the attacks on the SNP during the campaign. Despite Darling being a high profile Scottish MP in Edinburgh with a comfortable Labour majority for Westminister elections, the SNP won 5 new seats in the city in the 2011 Scottish elections gaining them from all 3 Unionist parties.

      As the Tories continue to trail Labour in the polls over the next two years, their attacks on Labour’s time in office are going to increase, blaming them for the banking crisis and out of control spending, and this puts Alistair Darling as Chancellor at the time right in the firing line. Someone’s going to have to come up with a pretty clever strategy to avoid that scenario.

      • Starfish

        They did not vote socialism out of power – just Labour’s version

        • Drew Edward

          The original post was regarding Alistair Darling’s competency as Tory saviour of the Union, as leader of the Better Together campaign, despite Labour’s record in office. With respect, if you think the SNP are a socialist party ask…..well virtually anyone who knows anything about Scottish politics.

        • dercavalier

          Make your mind up. One day Alex S is a roaring leftie the next he is a right wing fascist.

    • dercavalier

      “… Darling who they trust …”
      Well that is the joke of the day if not the week. The Scots do not trust the grey man one little bit. He is just another trougher at Westminster like the rest of the Scottish Labour MPs. Independence to them means the loss of their nose dipping rights and that is why they are against it.