Kate Hudson: No nukes

Written by Kate Hudson on 28 May 2012 in Comment

Whatever Scotland’s constitutional make-up, its electorate doesn’t want nuclear weapons

The forthcoming referendum on Scottish independence raises questions about the kind of Scotland its people want to have. That it should be free of nuclear weapons already seems clear.

A poll published by YouGov in 2010 showed that almost 70 per cent of Scottish people were opposed to the replacement of Trident, Britain’s nuclear weapons system. While similar polls have shown clear majority opposition across Britain as a whole, Scotland’s record has been stronger and often more vocal.

One explanation might be that this is because Scotland has had nuclear weapons thrust upon it since the 1960s. But I don’t believe this strength of opinion is simply a ‘not in my back yard’ approach to the Trident submarines and nuclear warheads situated at HMNB Clyde.

Of course, it would be rational and sensible not to want to play host to such monstrous weapons. Not only are the potential consequences of a nuclear accident, just 25 miles from Glasgow, unthinkable, but in a hypothetical (although of course unlikely) nuclear war, Scotland would doubtless be a target.

However, there seems something deeper in Scotland’s opposition to nuclear weapons, a sentiment which has perhaps been fostered by housing them for so long. This position chimes with a similarly forward-facing international momentum which recognises that these are Cold War weapons systems which come with a crippling price tag (taxpayers’ money which could be much better spent on meeting public needs) and an unconscionable destructive power, the unleashing of which would be illegal under international law.

Indeed, Scotland’s progressive orientation has been focused on as competing parties jostle for the hearts of voters in the independence referendum. It is no surprise, for example, that Ed Miliband said that Scotland’s progressive instincts would be best nurtured if it remained part of the United Kingdom: “The Scottish people have always stood out for their strongest ideals of social justice, shown by the history of educational opportunity for all, shown by the campaign down the years for the right to work – and the opposition to the poll tax. But my case is that these ideals for Scotland can best be realised in the United Kingdom.” Alex Salmond, too, has sought to harness these progressive attitudes, stating that in an SNP-led independent Scotland the welfare state and the NHS would be championed: “An independent Scotland can be a beacon for progressive opinion south of the border and further afield – addressing policy challenges in ways which reflect the universal values of fairness and are capable of [being implemented] within the other jurisdictions of these islands, and beyond.”.

Whatever the reasons for such strong opposition to weapons of mass destruction, opposing Trident will no doubt be a strong feature not only in the referendum campaign but also in Scottish politics, whatever the outcome. And this is clearly not a marginal position: any consensus which once existed in Westminster on Britain’s possession of nuclear weapons has been shattered in recent years – and Scotland will doubtless continue to play a crucial role in this debate.

Economically, Trident is completely untenable.

Amidst the largest public sector cuts in British history, it is impossible to justify spending over £100bn on nuclear weapons. And with a parliamentary decision on whether or not to commit to replacing Trident due to take place in 2016, it is no done deal.

Strategically, the Government’s own National Security Strategy carried out in 2010 established that the highest priority threats facing Britain are cyber attacks, international terrorism, and global crises such as pandemics. Indeed, the risk of a state-on-state nuclear attack was downgraded to a two-tier threat.

recent report by the Liberal think tank CentreForum also echoed Toby Fenwick’s piece in politics.co.uk that “there is no credible threat to the UK now or in the foreseeable future where British Trident missiles would make a contribution to our security.” Citing the devastating impact of nuclear weapons spending on conventional defence forces, the report argued for the immediate scrapping of Trident and cancellation of plans to replace it.

There has never been a better time for Scotland to make its voice heard on this issue.

It is the case, however, that an independent Scotland would have greater clout vis-à-vis Trident. In keeping with the SNP’s longstanding opposition to Trident, Alex Salmond stated: “It is inconceivable that an independent nation of 5.25m people would tolerate the continued presence of weapons of mass destruction on its soil.” This would cause real problems for any Westminster plan to maintain a nuclear weapons system. Ministry of Defence (MoD) papers discussing various bases to site its Polaris nuclear fleet (Trident’s predecessor) have shown that the MoD itself concluded that there is simply nowhere else for Trident to be located. While other deepwater ports could be found to site the submarines themselves (though these are not unproblematic), an MoD source has confirmed that “there simply isn’t anywhere else where we can do what we do at Coulport [warhead depot], and without that, there is no deterrent.” The rejection of Trident has sometimes been painted in a negative light: as a recalcitrant Scotland making trouble for the UK. This must be challenged. Scrapping Trident not only has majority public support, but it would be a chance for Scotland and the UK to act as world leaders in disarmament (not to mention carrying out their legal obligations under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty).

One issue which has been raised recently is whether an independent Scotland would become a member of NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation). While the SNP has a strong record of opposition to NATO, it has been rumoured recently that this policy may be reconsidered at the party’s National Council meeting in June. There are some points worth considering here which are crucial in any discussion of this issue.

Firstly, membership of NATO would preclude effective opposition to nuclear weapons.

Scotland would have to accept NATO’s Strategic Concept which affirms its status as a nuclear alliance. On this basis it would be extremely difficult to expel Trident. This is precisely the problem which Germany faced when it stated that it no longer wished to host NATO-assigned US tactical nuclear weapons in its territory.

Following a lack of agreement from fellow member-states, it was forced to retain them.

Secondly, Scotland would become tied in to disastrous NATO-led military interventions which have wreaked havoc in countries like Afghanistan. The question must be asked: is this how the Scottish electorate envisions a future Scotland?

Thirdly, it has been claimed that “a decision not to join NATO would be seen as a signal that the new Scotland was stepping out of the European mainstream”. A much more realistic appraisal would suggest that Scotland is well placed to follow in the footsteps of EU states with comparable economies, populations and diplomatic outlooks like Finland, Austria, Sweden and most significantly, Ireland. These states are not NATO members but they are engaged in international affairs and maintain good relations with the UK.

Indeed, with Finland selected by the UN to convene a landmark conference this year towards a WMD-Free Zone in the Middle East, it is clear that non-NATO states have a hugely important role to play in international diplomacy. If Scotland does opt for independence, it is states like this which can provide a model for development.

As Scotland continues on its path for further autonomy or independence from Westminster, those of us south of the border who wish to see an end to nuclear weapons are watching with interest and respect for the choices that will be made. We know that your decisions will impact on nuclear policies in Westminster and we seek to engage with the progressive voices of Scottish politics which look to build on a vision of Scotland which champions public needs over Cold War weapons systems; peace and justice over war.

The billions which are spent on outmoded and devastating weapons are the same billions which are being cut from schools, hospitals and housing. Whether Scotland will become an independent state in 2014 is entirely a choice for the Scottish people. But their ongoing opposition to the wrong-headed commitment to maintaining a nuclear weapons system will continue to inspire us and to find support south of the border, as it will across the world.

Kate Hudson was Chair of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament from 2003 to September 2010 when she became General Secretary. She is a leading anti-nuclear and anti-war campaigner nationally and internationally

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