Trident, new report shows Scotland has Westminster over a nuclear barrel

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By a Newsnet reporter

A study to be published today reveals that there is no viable alternative to the Faslane and Coulport bases for the UK’s nuclear deterrent and says that Westminster would be forced to pay any price to Scotland to host the weapons until new storage facilities could be constructed. 

The study, carried out by John Ainslie of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, claims that a secret report by the Ministry of Defence in 1963 ruled out alternative sites including Devonport, Barrow-in-Furness, the Isle of Portland in Dorset, Falmouth in Cornwall and Milford Haven in Wales.

By a Newsnet reporter

A study to be published today reveals that there is no viable alternative to the Faslane and Coulport bases for the UK’s nuclear deterrent and says that Westminster would be forced to pay any price to Scotland to host the weapons until new storage facilities could be constructed. 

The study, carried out by John Ainslie of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, claims that a secret report by the Ministry of Defence in 1963 ruled out alternative sites including Devonport, Barrow-in-Furness, the Isle of Portland in Dorset, Falmouth in Cornwall and Milford Haven in Wales.

Mr Ainslie says in his own report that the reasons these alternative sites were ruled out in 1963 remain just as valid today, and in fact alternative locations within the UK are even less viable now as there would be massive environmental and financial repercussions.  

According to the Daily Telegraph, officials and top naval officers at the Ministry of Defence have warned UK ministers that after a Scottish declaration of independence the rump-UK government would have no choice but to negotiate with the Scottish government in order to strike a deal to allow the missiles to remain in Scotland.  The problem for Westminster is not the future base of the submarine fleet, but storage facilities for the missiles and the nuclear warheads.

The warhead and missile storage facility at Coulport contains specialised reinforced bunkers and handling equipment, and is the only such facility in the UK.  According to one source at the MoD quoted in the Telegraph:

“Berths [for submarines] would not be a problem – there are docks on the south coast that could be used without too much fuss.  But there simply isn’t anywhere else where we can do what we do at Coulport, and without that, there is no deterrent.”

The source added:  “Maintaining the deterrent is the first priority for any UK government, so ministers in London would have to pay Salmond any price to ensure we kept access to [Faslane and Coulport].  It would be an unbelievable nightmare.”

Defence expert Professor William Walker of St Andrews University agreed, saying it would be “very, very difficult and very, very costly” to move Trident out of Scotland.  Prof Walker suggested that a likely legal framework could be based upon the so-called treaty ports, naval bases which the UK retained in Ireland after Irish independence in 1922.  These facilities were returned to the Irish shortly before the outbreak of WW2.

However there is a groundswell of public opinion in Scotland deeply opposed to the presence of the weapons of mass destruction on Scottish soil, indeed for many the removal of nuclear weapons from the country is a prime motivator for seeking independence.  The Scottish government and First Minister Alex Salmond share these sentiments.  

During the debate on the referendum in the Scottish Parliament last week, Mr Salmond was asked whether an independent Scotland would do a deal with Westminster to retain Trident in Scotland on behalf of the rump-UK.  Mr Salmond replied: “It is inconceivable that an independent nation of 5.25m people would tolerate the continued presence of weapons of mass destruction on its soil.”

Recently UK defence minister Philip Hammond claimed that an independent Scotland could find itself being forced to pay the rump-UK for the costs of moving the nuclear weapons and associated infrastructure to a new location.  The new report by John Ainslie rubbishes this claim, saying:

“These are idle threats.  Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan found themselves as independent countries with large numbers of nuclear weapons.  It is ridiculous to suggest that these three countries should each have paid Russia to build new nuclear silos.”

Under nuclear non-proliferation treaties, to which the UK is a signatory, Westminster will not be able to move its nuclear deterrent to a third country such as the USA, as had been mooted by some.

In the event of Scottish independence, the only option open to Westminster’s defence chiefs would be to negotiate with the Scottish government in an attempt to persuade it to permit the retention of Trident on Scottish territory for perhaps as long as 10 years until a new storage facility could be constructed elsewhere.  The rump-UK would only be able to retain its nuclear deterrent with Scottish permission.  Major concessions would have to be made to the Scottish government to make a deal palatable.

Westminster’s desire to retain the nuclear missile system would give the Scottish government immense bargaining power over other issues like Scotland’s share of the UK national debt and other financial liabilities.  Any deal would also most likely include substantial investment in the local economy to ensure that employment prospects in the area do not suffer after the closure of the bases, and a commitment from Westminster to pay all costs associated with clearing up the site.

A spokesperson for MoD refused to discuss details of the nuclear deterrent and the future of Trident, saying: “The UK government position is clear and we are arguing the case for Scotland to remain within the Union.  However, any decisions on Scotland’s future are for people in Scotland to decide.”