Scottish independence and banning nuclear weapons

By Ray Acheson, Reaching Critical Will and Thomas Nash, Article 36

Scottish independence could be the most significant development for international nuclear disarmament efforts in many years.

The Scottish National Party has pledged that if the Scottish people vote in favour of independence in the September 2014 referendum, it will negotiate the removal of the UK Trident nuclear weapon system from the Faslane Naval Base, located 40km from Glasgow.

The debate in the UK

The independence movement has reignited discussion about nuclear weapons in the UK, which is a very positive thing. The UK government, helped by the mainstream media and insider think tanks, has systematically sidelined serious national debate about nuclear disarmament. The conversation in these circles generally assumes that the £20 billion replacement of the UK’s four Trident submarines over the next decade will go ahead and disregards alternatives to renewing the UK’s commitment to nuclear weapons.

Successive UK governments have been quite comfortable in international deliberations on disarmament, claiming that the 1968 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty gives them some kind of right to possess nuclear weapons. The dynamic in international disarmament discussions has been one where the non-nuclear-armed states basically ask the nuclear-armed states to disarm and the nuclear-armed states say: “yes we understand, we are working on it, but we need world peace (or something like it) before we can all disarm together.” And they say it’s the disarmament activists that have a utopian vision.

The debate outside the UK

But things are changing. A revitalised movement is underway to ban nuclear weapons on the basis of their unacceptable humanitarian consequences. The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons is gathering support from young people, the humanitarian community, as well as traditional disarmament activists. Norway and Mexico have hosted international conferences—attended by 127 and 146 states respectively—to discuss the actual humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons and the risk that they might detonate, by accident, misjudgment, or design. This new process has focused on evidence of the potential impact of a nuclear weapon detonation and of the risk of such a detonation.

The misguided UK decision to boycott these meetings, which constitute the most promising process on nuclear disarmament in decades, should not keep the views of Scottish people sidelined. Indeed, often the first question posed to UK activists by colleagues from other countries is how Scottish independence would affect nuclear weapon possession in the UK.

If an independent Scotland fulfills its policy of removing Trident from its territory, the UK will face a costly a time-consuming task to find another “acceptable” location if it wishes to maintain its nuclear-armed submarines. The hypocrisy of the UK’s position on the risk of nuclear weapons has been exposed through this discussion. While Westminster has said that potential locations in England are unacceptable due to their proximities to population centres, they have been housing nuclear submarines and loading nuclear weapons onto them not far from Glasgow since 1969. If the UK government does decide to relocate the weapons, building a new base will cost £2.5–3.5 billion.

An opportunity for change

If the Scottish people vote yes in September, their decision to become independent could provide an opportunity for the UK to rethink its approach to nuclear weapons. The very high costs of replacing the submarines, coupled with the logistical challenges and high costs of relocating the weapons provides the government with a way out. It could use this chance to become a progressive force for change on the international stage by rejecting its reliance on nuclear weapons and leading the way on nuclear disarmament.

In the immediate term, the UK should announce that it intends to participate in the third conference of the humanitarian initiative on nuclear weapons, which is scheduled for 8-9 December in Vienna.

For its part, the Scottish government should commit that, in the event of a yes vote, it would participate actively in the humanitarian initiative on nuclear weapons and that it would support negotiations on an international treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons, even without the participation of the nuclear-armed states. Such a treaty would finally make the possession of nuclear weapons unambiguously illegal for all, putting them on the same footing as biological and chemical weapons.

It would be more difficult for the UK government to continue its absurd and costly pursuit of renewing the Trident nuclear weapons system against the backdrop of international negotiations to ban nuclear weapons. This treaty could help the UK overcome its Cold War thinking about security by undermining the economic and political arguments in favour of maintaining these weapons of mass destruction.

Scotland could also play a key role on nuclear disarmament if it becomes a NATO member—recognizing some tension between seeking the elimination of nuclear weapons and joining a nuclear-armed alliance. If an independent Scotland did decide to join the alliance, it could follow the example of other NATO states such as Iceland and Lithuania, which do not allow nuclear weapons on their soil under any circumstances. Furthermore, if an independent Scotland were helping lead the process to establish an international treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons, this would have a major impact on other NATO members and would situate it at the forefront of foreign policy debates at the international level. 

The nuclear weapons question in Scotland has understandably been framed as a debate between the governments in Edinburgh and Westminster, but it is the international dimension that could be most significant of all. Nuclear disarmament in the UK is not all about Scotland, just as Scottish independence is not all about nuclear weapons. Whatever happens when the Scottish people vote on 18 September, the debate will continue about nuclear disarmament in the UK. Independent country or not, the Scottish government should continue to push for a nuclear-free Scotland, a nuclear-free UK, and a global ban on nuclear weapons.