Scotland Decides ’14: could Salmond shift on retaining nuclear weapons?

Salmond – one pink hair day away from the anti-nuclear picket? Danny Lawson/PA

One long-running sore in the Scottish independence referendum campaign concerns the future UK’s nuclear deterrent. Scottish Nationalists say an independent Scotland will no longer house any of the UK’s nuclear arsenal at Faslane and Coulport. The party even wants the anti-nuclear stance written into the proposed Scottish constitution.

Recently the party’s position on nuclear was called into question when the latest British Social Attitudes survey indicated that the Scottish public possibly had a more pro-nuclear stance. With the UK Trident Commission this week proposing that the country should maintain its nuclear capability, we asked our panel where this issue was heading.


Trevor Salmon, Emeritus Professor of Politics and International Relations, University of Aberdeen

It is all very well for the SNP to argue that an independent Scotland would join NATO because of their conference decision, but the nuclear issue will actually be the key. You could argue that only three of NATO’s members possess nuclear weapons; that Norway and Denmark have national legislation that does not allow nuclear weapons on their territory in peacetime; and that about 20 neither possess or host nuclear weapons. But that misses the point.

Norway, Denmark and many of those other nuclear-free countries joined NATO in a different era. The Danes and Norwegians both joined in 1949, at a time when the cold war had just begun and the priority for the allies was to assemble a broad defence base. The Americans may not have liked their positions, but they were willing to tolerate them at the time. That wouldn’t necessarily be the case now.

When you join NATO you undertake a formal obligation to respect and meet the political, legal and military obligations and commitments, and to accept all of its principles, policies and procedures previously adopted by members. This means that every member accepts the alliance’s nuclear first-strike capability, if NATO is losing a conventional war.

One question that Alex Salmond has never answered is whether if NATO tried to use nuclear weapons, would he attempt to veto it. Of course in reality everyone knows that although the veto may be implied by the fact that NATO is supposed to act by consensus, there would be no veto in practice. The US and Iceland are not equal. All the same, NATO will not allow a state that is philosophically against nuclear weapons to join. If the answer to the Salmond question is yes, NATO would never let him in.

As Lord Robertson has said, other states that have applied to join NATO since 1989, such as Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic, were told to resolve territorial and other disputes so that they did not import problems with their neighbours into NATO .

The whole question of nuclear weapons in Scotland would require long and complex negotiations. It would be unrealistic to suppose that the British PM and government would easily give up Faslane’s nuclear facilities. There may be a proposal for a constitutional legally binding guarantee to close down the nuclear facilities under an SNP government by 2020, but there is no political mileage for the British PM to agree to this – not if they wish to win the British election after 2015!

As well as the theological and philosophical arguments about having nuclear weapons, there are also political arguments. Sweden has long argued that its decision not to go down the nuclear route added to its status in the world and gave it leverage. But it must be said that Norway has played a key role in the Middle East rather than Sweden.

Michael Keating, Professor of Politics, University of Aberdeen

The most recent British Social Attitudes survey didn’t show that the Scots wanted to keep Trident, contrary to how it was reported in some quarters. A majority were opposed to Britain having nuclear weapons, which is also what previous surveys have shown.

When they were asked whether nuclear weapons should stay in Scotland after independence, a slightly higher proportion agreed than disagreed. But I would not put too much weight on this. It just means that most voters are relaxed about compromises with the UK after independence. The SNP are not out of line with Scottish opinion here. If the unionists are going to make that an argument, it’s probably not going to be a winning argument.

It’s hard to imagine the SNP abandoning its commitment to remove Trident as it is a core issue for many in the party. The Labour party is divided on nuclear weapons. The Conservatives could talk about it, but of course they don’t have a lot of credibility in Scotland.

Perhaps for these reasons, the unionists have been a little bit quiet on this subject. When they talk about Trident, the focus is usually on jobs rather than arguing it’s necessary because we are going to use it or because it’s essential for British defence. The argument about defence in general also rapidly becomes one about jobs.

I don’t think anybody thinks that the weapons would go by 2020. There would probably be some sort of transitional arrangement. During that time, the UK might have changed its mind about Trident altogether.

I still have difficulty in believing that the UK is going to spend up to £100bn on a weapons system it’s never going to use. It begs credibility, particularly when most the armed forces don’t want it, and are being deprived of resources for basic kit. It seems a gigantic national prestige project.

That’s probably why there’s quite a lot of scepticism about the whole thing. At some point, a British government will likely say this is going to be a waste of money. Scottish independence might provoke it, or it may not. The whole debate seems slightly unreal to me.

As far as NATO is concerned, nobody is really paying attention to what the two sides are saying. If people think about it at all, they assume Scotland would get in since nobody has an interest in creating a hole in NATO coverage.

This debate does tell us something about the wider referendum campaign. If you look at public opinion in Scotland, there’s not a lot of support for independence in a hard sense. People want control of domestic policy, of welfare and taxation. They are not that interested in getting control of defence policy, which is perhaps one reason why this does not look like a make-or-break issue for the electorate.

To read other editions of Scotland Decides ‘14, click here.