By a Newsnet reporter
Yes campaigners say that David Cameron’s visit to Scotland this week has left the anti-independence campaign with a major headache as they attempt to justify his nuclear weapons claims to a Scottish public that is overwhelmingly opposed to nuclear weapons.
Reaction to David Cameron’s claims that North Korea is currently capable of attacking the UK with a nuclear missile has been overwhelmingly negative, with former Tory Defence Secretary Michael Portillo describing the claims as “absurd”.
Most experts consider that North Korea does not possess the technology or expertise necessary to miniaturise a nuclear warhead in order to load it onto a long range missile. It is believed that North Korea will not possess such a capability for the foreseeable future.
The Prime Minister’s remarks have also opened up a breach with the Conservatives’ coalition partners. Speaking to the BBC, Lib Dem health minister Norman Lamb described the Prime Minister’s claim as “ludicrous”.
Labour is also committed to a like-for-like replacement of Trident. Tony Blair committed the Labour Party to a like-for-like replacement back in 2006, a stance which has remained party policy since. Recent reports that the party was considering moving away from this position and thinking about a cheaper replacement were dismissed by party sources.
Speaking to the defence industry publication DefenceManagement in March, a spokesperson for Labour said: “The idea that Labour is moving away from Trident is false. [Labour] will not compromise on having a credible nuclear deterrent.”
Also in March, Labour’s defence spokesperson Jim Murphy tweeted: “Labour will retain credible independent nuclear deterrent.Wl judge policy on capability and cost. Plus strong multilateralism.”
With all the three main anti-independence parties supporting the UK’s nuclear capacity, it is little surprise that the official anti-independence campaign also supports nuclear weapons being stationed in Scotland. A briefing recently published by the anti-independence campaign made explicitly clear that the No campaign is a pro-nuclear weapons organisation, claiming that nuclear weapons are the “ultimate guarantee of our national security”.
The No campaign also claims that the money saved from cancelling Trident would be “negligible”. However even the No campaign accepts that Scotland’s share of the nuclear weapons system currently runs to around £164 million annually, this does not include the development costs of a replacement to Trident. The cost of a like-for-like replacement of the ageing missile system, the option favoured by the Conservatives, is estimated to reach over £100 billion.
Many defence experts argue that since the end of the Cold War, Trident has little or no strategic value, given that the greatest threat to the UK and other Western nations is now seen as coming from terrorist organisations. Terrorist organisations present no target that can be attacked by a nuclear warhead.
In February 2009, Field Marshal Lord Bramall, the former head of the armed forces, argued that the huge sums being spent on replacing the ageing submarines that carry Trident missiles could be better used to buy conventional weapons which are badly needed by the armed forces. In a letter to the Times newspaper, which was co-signed by a number of other retired senior officers, Field Marshall Bramall wrote:
“Nuclear weapons have shown themselves to be completely useless as a deterrent to the threats and scale of violence we currently face or are likely to face, particularly international terrorism. Our independent deterrent has become virtually irrelevant, except in the context of domestic politics.”
Speaking to BBC Newsnight just after the letter was published, retired army general Lord Ramsbotham said:
“We argue that it is conventional weapons we now need. Their pinpoint accuracy, their ability to help our forces in the sort of conflicts that are taking place is something which means you have to question the huge expense of Trident, which is limiting what we can do.
“We don’t own the missiles and it is absolutely unthinkable that we should ever consider using it or threatening to use it without having the clearance of the United States.
“The fact is that Trident is an inappropriate weapons system. You can’t see Trident being used against something like nuclear blackmail by international terrorism. It is a cold war weapon. It is not a weapon for the situation where we are now.”
The most recent opinion poll on the subject found that four in every five people in Scotland are opposed to paying up to £100 billion to site a new generation of nuclear weapons on the Clyde – including three-quarters of those currently thinking of voting No.
Yes campaigners argue that the only means of removing nuclear weapons from the Clyde is by a vote for independence in next year’s referendum.
Commenting, SNP MSP Jamie Hepburn said:
“The huge backlash to David Cameron’s posturing on Trident this week, in which he tried to hype up the supposed threat to the UK from North Korea, has caused real problems for the No campaign.
“They have explicitly tied themselves to a pro-nuclear weapons position – despite the overwhelming opposition of people in Scotland – and have now been left on the back foot in having to justify David Cameron’s wild claims.
“Why does the No campaign trust the dodgy claims of David Cameron more than they trust the reasoned view of people in Scotland, who are overwhelmingly opposed to Trident – by 80 per cent in the most recent poll? Scotland’s Parliament has also voted decisively against Trident.
“Cameron’s speech strikes at the heart of the credibility of the Westminster system, and the credibility of the No campaign itself.
“If this is the way David Cameron conducts himself, then it’s no wonder that the anti-independence campaign is desperate to keep the Prime Minister as far away from the debate in Scotland as possible. But he is the real leader of the No campaign, and put himself at the front of the No campaign this week.
“There is no justification for wasting up to £100 billion on a new generation of weapons of mass destruction, and only a Yes vote in September 2014 will ensure that these weapons are removed from the Clyde once and for all.”