The Scottish National Party election landslide win augurs more than Scottish independence – including a profound threat to the viability of Britain as a Nuclear Weapons State.
Amidst the multitude of commentaries – horrified or joyous – on the Conservative victory in the British election, most missed the most strategically and militarily important consequence. No, not Brexit, accelerated decline for England though that will likely be. North of the border, the Scottish National Party swept almost every seat, not only firming up the overlap between Scottish national identity and attachment to Europe, but also dramatically accelerating the gathering signs of Britain moving towards becoming the world’s first major nuclear disarming threshold state.
This is not new in Britain, and is closely tied to the ways in which nuclear weapons answer the question of what kind of country Britain actually wants to be. Supporters of the British nuclear state have been on the defensive for a long time. As Boris Johnson, an identity politician if ever there was one – albeit disingenuous at the same time – put it in 2015, if Britain should lose its nuclear weapons
‘We would suffer a public and visible diminution of global authority; we would be sending a signal that we no longer wished to be taken seriously; that we were perfectly happy to abandon our seat on the UN Security Council to some suit from Brussels; that we were becoming a kind of military capon.’
In a BBC News election debate leaders of the seven major parties contesting the election were asked ‘ ‘If our country was under nuclear attack, would you or the leader of your party use our nuclear weapons to defend our country?’ Four said ‘yes’, and three ‘no’ (Green, Plaid Cymru, SNP).
The SNP’s cut-through leader Nicola Sturgeon was categorical and articulate, reflecting a long-standing and worked through party position:
Sturgeon: ‘No. Absolutely and emphatically not, because it would lead to the deaths of possibly tens of millions of people and wipe out swathes of our civilization. So under no circumstances would I use nuclear weapons.’
BBC: ‘And if it came to it in a hung parliament negotiation would that issue of Trident be as important as that of Scottish independence and Brexit?’
Sturgeon: ‘I think Trident is both a financial issue – I don’t think we should waste 200 billion pounds on it – but it’s a moral issue – we should be investing in health and education, not in weapons of mass destruction.’
The Green Party and Plaid Cymru may not count for much in British parliamentary politics, but the SNP certainly does.
Already, Britain’s fabled ‘ultimate insurance policy’ provided by its ‘independent nuclear force’ is a fig leaf for the UK as a client nuclear state. Scottish independence would mean the collapse of even that strategically risible status, and with it, Britain’s – or more properly, England’s – desperate clinging onto the tattered and stained costumes of empire.
Britain’s nuclear weapons platform consists of its four ageing Vanguard-class nuclear missile submarines, each armed with 12 Trident-II D5 nuclear missiles carrying forty 100-kiloton nuclear weapons. All up, the UK currently has about 120 missiles ‘operationally available’, and about half that number again stockpiled. One of the four submarines is always at sea, and the other three are in their homeports, but wherever they are, they are in multiple ways dependent on the United States. The missiles are US-made, and leased from the US. The warheads are an ‘Anglicized’ version designed by Los Alamos National Laboratory and manufactured in Texas. A ‘UK cell’ in US Strategic Command is responsible for targeting and for ‘deconflicting’ NATO and US nuclear targeting – aka reducing the chances of wastage of resources for nuclear holocaust.
The critical issue for Britain’s nuclear weapons is that the submarines are currently based in Faslane, 40 kms from Glasgow, and the SNP has long called for its closure. The only serious alternatives are the bulk-carrier and gas port of Milford Haven in Wales – with the risk of Welsh nationalists following the Scottish precedent – and the already crowded Devonport naval base surrounded by a quarter of a million people in living in Plymouth. Already naval specialists are predicting that the only viable alternative to Faslane is to homeport the submarines across the Atlantic in Kings Bay in Georgia.
There is a long way to go before Scottish independence, but the supporters of the dogma of nuclear deterrence have been alive to the problem for some time. Though it may be a surprise to some, the latest criticism of Sturgeon’s position came from an associate editor of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, in a BAS piece on the debate titled ‘Some Brits throw nuclear deterrence under the coach’.
In the face of this putative betrayal of the sanctity of Atlanticist nuclear orthodoxy John Krzyzaniak dismissed the threat, and offered reassuring nostrums that the SNP doesn’t matter: either Sturgeon is either irrelevant or she is venal.
Deterrence is safe, argued Krzyzaniak, because it is NATO that matters, not the UK:
‘So a politician in the United Kingdom could forswear retaliation without undermining deterrence, because the US doctrine, under which the United States would respond to any military attack on the United Kingdom, would remain intact. Better to let the Americans do the dirty work.’
Or simply, because ‘Nicola Sturgeon might just be telling her base what they want to hear’, and can be safely ignored.
The stain of the nuclear state runs deep in both the United Kingdom and the United States, even amongst self-described American liberals, for whom nuclear deterrence remains next to godliness. The reality is that decades of community-based anti-nuclear campaigning in the United Kingdom have established deep scepticism – to some extent regionally various – about the strategic utility – and morality – of the not-very-independent nuclear force. The long debate in Britain about the renewal of Trident – finally decided in the affirmative by the ascension of Theresa May – was remarkable in many ways – quite distinct from the pseudo-‘community consultations’ that usually accompany defence pronouncements in both the UKL and Australia.
Notably, serious conservatives and mainstream military specialists argued that in the UK’s straitened fiscal circumstances, it was time to choose. Any government, it was argued, would have to choose between the dubious strategic benefits of the extraordinarily expensive renewal of Trident over the next three decades and a capacity for the British military to continue to contribute to US wars of choice in the Middle East.
One way or another, nuclear weapons policy in Britain is no longer a matter of course about the bland verities of nuclear deterrence. England’s move toward the threshold of becoming a nuclear disarming state is no longer unthinkable.
Richard Tanter is a former president of the Australian board of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN).
Nautilus Institute and the University of Melbourne,
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