September 21, 2016

From Unilateral to Multilateral

Someone has to take the first step. The journey to multilateral action on nuclear disarmament is proving a longer road than those who established the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) had envisioned. As a result nuclear weapon proliferation has established a significant foothold with Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea (DPRK) at varying levels of armament, with Iran feared to be next in line.

The nuclear weapon-States who are signatories to the NPT paint pretty pictures of a world without nuclear weapons and have been doing so for many years now. Their failure to make significant head-way towards achieving this supposed goal has led however, inevitably some might say, to the begin-nings of proliferation of Weapons of Mass De-struction (WMD) and their potential delivery sys-tems. New nuclear States also want to use this style of megaphone diplomacy – “HEY WE’RE IMPORTANT TOO! WE’VE GOT THE BOMB!”

So, is it too late now for any of the nuclear weap-on-States to unburden themselves and the global community of these weapons? Is the world too much of a dangerous place to disarm?

Let’s be honest, it wouldn’t be politically easy for one of the P5 to put themselves out there and say they’d be possibly willing to forgo the position of pre-eminence that they’ve held on the world stage since the end of the Second World War, and the establishment of the United Nations in the face of Cold War antagonisms. How could a player who’s held the whip hand in international power politics for so long, just give up one of the core building blocks of that power and still maintain economic and cultural influence across the globe?

However can anyone doubt the prize to be won in terms of diplomatic kudos by whoever takes that step of leading the way towards honestly disarming warheads and dismantling the apparatus of their nuclear bases? Not to mention the economic savings, which would accrue for the benefit of their population, enabling programmes of civic development to boost infrastructure and employment opportunities. All this, whilst removing the cloud of constant uncertainty hanging over that section of their population forced to live with a nuclear base as their next-door-neighbour.

We propose here to take the case of the United Kingdom and examine whether it could become that beacon of light and progress, even if by de-fault.

All of the U.K.’s nuclear bombs are situated at the ‘Faslane/Coulport’ naval base on ‘Loch Long’, 40 Kilometres (25 miles) from Glasgow; the largest city in Scotland and the metropolitan centre for one half of that country’s population. There are around 225 nuclear warheads designated for de-ployment on the Trident submarine delivery sys-tem, which is stationed at this base (including three operational vessels and one presently on re-fit at Devonport in the South of England).

The original ‘Polaris’ system was established as a Cold War programme with the specific purpose of destroying Moscow and its surrounding cities. This was re-stated in 1980, when Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (Conservative) purchased the ‘Trident’ replacement. Then in 2006, Prime Minister Tony Blair (Labour) decided that a new weapons system was required, and ‘Son of Trident’ was announced. Now in October 2012, the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg (Liberal Democrat) has stated the new system will go ahead. 20 years after the end of the Cold War, the objective will remain the same, that is, to obliterate at the press of a button the lives of the 14 million men, women and children of Moscow and its suburbs.

The new fleet of nuclear submarines is planned to enter into service in 2028, with a new design of nuclear bomb operational in the 2030’s, and a new missile in 2040. The intention of the British Gov-ernment, of any political stripe, is that this system should be based in Scotland until 2067.

This doesn’t sound like a good faith approach to the NPT, particularly Article VI of that document, to which the United Kingdom is of course a signa-tory. The long-term direction of the British Gov-ernment is one of the up-grade and maintenance of its ‘independent’ nuclear deterrent. It may also be inferred from this that the future plans of the USA are of similar intent, as the U.K.’s missiles are borrowed from the U.S. Navy, and all launch equipment and computer software is purchased from the United States (Britain holding only 12-month spare parts although its stated ambitions are for a 45-year programme). This is of course, all for a system we are assured is never intended to be used.

The cost to the U.K. taxpayer of this phallic nuclear symbol has doubled from £1 billion per year in 2005, to £2 billion per year in 2012. The U.K. Government’s stated aim, to build a new nuclear system and keep it in service until 2067, will cost around £100 billion at present estimates. Meanwhile, universal welfare benefits are to be reviewed, along with public sector pensions being reduced whilst teachers, the emergency services and other public servants work longer into old age so the state can afford them a reduced life annuity. In the face of this the call from many is ‘welfare not warfare’!

What therefore do those forced to live cheek-by-jowl with Trident, the people of Scotland, want to see? Well, 66% of Scots polled say they want the system scrapped (58% in England), with 30% stating retention is their preferred option.1TNS BMRB Scottish Opinion Survey. March 13, 2013. In a March 2007 parliamentary vote an overwhelming majority of Westminster MPs voted for the Trident replacement, whilst the majority of that minority representing Scottish constituencies voted against.2United Kingdom House of Commons, Debates, Trident, March 14, 2007. nsrd/cm070314/debindx/70314-x.htm In June 2007, the vote in the devolved Scottish Parliament showed an overwhelming opposition to ‘Son of Trident’, with only the 16 Conservative and Unionist Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs) voting in favour, out of a total of 129 MSPs.3Scottish Parliament, Debates, Trident Replacement, June 14, 2007. s/16605.aspx.

In addition, all of those political parties and other organisations that have signed up to the ‘YES for Independence’ campaign, have endorsed opposi-tion to the replacement of Trident in Scotland and its soonest removal, as expressed by the Scottish Government.

Further, civil society in Scotland, including the churches, trade unions and voluntary organisations, has a long history of calling for nuclear disarmament. Indeed in 2007, a joint report on the future of Trident was published by the Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (SCND) and the Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC).

The direction of this document was to spell out the economic and employment consequences for Scotland of the Trident replacement project and a decision to renew or not to renew the system, with regards to the alternative of the continuing maintenance of Faslane/Coulport as a conventional weapons naval base. The figures showed that the replacement of Trident would in fact cost Scotland more jobs than it would provide, and, by contrast, the funds released by the cancellation of Trident would create a major opportunity for productive investment in Scotland’s economy – especially with regards to the development of the renewables industry.4“Cancelling Trident: The Economic and Employment Consequences for Scotland.” Report Commissioned by the Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the Scottish Trades Union Congress, Chapter 2, pages 9-11. March 11, 2007. %20CND%20Trident%20Report%202007/STUCCND%20Trident%20Report.pdf.

The key question is, following the Scottish inde-pendence referendum in the autumn of 2014, should the people of Scotland vote for the creation of an independent State, what will be the future of Trident? In October 2012 the Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond said that an explicit ban on nuclear weapons should be written into the constitution of an independent Scotland; therefore any Scottish government that tried to keep Trident would be in breach of the constitution.5Salmon, Alex. “Speech to the SNP National Conference.” Perth, Scotland. October 20, 2012. This brings the long-term commitment of the governing Scottish National Party (SNP) to a new and defining moment in its opposition to nuclear weapons, and this despite the recent decision to remain within NATO post-independence. Such a stand, we would contend, deserves international support from all those who wish to see the NPT at work in practice.

How long would Trident’s cancellation take to implement? Well, technically steps could be taken within 7-days that would prevent any of the mis-siles being launched. Within two years, all of the nuclear warheads could be removed from Scotland. After a further two years these bombs could be dismantled. This timescale was published by SCND in “Disarming Scotland” in June 2012 and has been described as realistic by senior American nuclear weapons experts, the Scottish Government, and, significantly, the Westminster Scottish Affairs Committee.6“The Referendum on Separation for Scotland: Terminating Trident—Days or Decades?” Fourth Report of Session 2012–13, House of Commons Scottish Affairs Committee. October 25, 2012. ect/cmscotaf/676/676.pdf.

What therefore would become of the United Kingdom’s independent nuclear deterrent? Well it couldn’t be moved to a new base in England or Wales. In 1963 the Westminster Government con-sidered a number of possible sites for its nuclear-armed submarines, and did this again between 1980 and 1982. The records of these investigations and discussions showed major problems with all of the possible options, whether because of population density or for reasons of cost and environmental issues at developing a greenfield site. Even if a site could be identified it would take at least twenty years to replicate the facilities at the existing Scottish sites.

What about stationing overseas? Well in 1981 Prime Minister Thatcher considered and rejected the idea of basing the fleet in the United States, as this would have left the force transparently de-pendent on American support, raised even further issues of compliance with the NPT and come at considerable cost for exclusive facilities to be con-structed.

France? The nuclear submarine base in Brittany is too small to accommodate Trident and in reality the politics surrounding such a shared facility would surely make such a proposal a non-starter.

The contention is then, that with a ‘YES’ vote in the Scottish Independence Referendum in late 2014, one of the P5 will, by default, necessarily find itself on the edge of being outside the nuclear club. Unlike Kazakhstan’s decision twenty years ago this wouldn’t be through choice, but then as stated earlier, it’s clear that there is no political imperative on behalf of any of the British establishment to disarm their nukes at any time in the future, so other circumstances may have to prevail.

Someone has to take the first step, and if Scotland becomes an independent nuclear weapons-free zone can Westminster’s government find a way to remain nuclear weapons dependent? Or will this be the breakthrough that will lead to the serious de facto action on multilateral nuclear disarmament we’re all signed up to with the NPT?



  • BILL KIDD is a Scottish National Party (SNP) politician, Scottish Government Senior Whip and Member of the Scottish Parliament for Glasgow Anniesland. He has been an MSP since 2007. In addition, he serves as a Co-President for Parliamentarians for Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament (PNND and is an Executive Member of Scottish CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) and Abolition 2000 Global Council Member.
  • JOHN AINSLIE has been the Coordinator of the Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) for over twenty years. He has produced a significant number of reports and papers, particularly on the Trident nuclear weapon system. He has given evidence to various Parliamentary Committees on the Trident system.

References   [ + ]

1. TNS BMRB Scottish Opinion Survey. March 13, 2013.
2. United Kingdom House of Commons, Debates, Trident, March 14, 2007. nsrd/cm070314/debindx/70314-x.htm
3. Scottish Parliament, Debates, Trident Replacement, June 14, 2007. s/16605.aspx.
4. “Cancelling Trident: The Economic and Employment Consequences for Scotland.” Report Commissioned by the Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the Scottish Trades Union Congress, Chapter 2, pages 9-11. March 11, 2007. %20CND%20Trident%20Report%202007/STUCCND%20Trident%20Report.pdf.
5. Salmon, Alex. “Speech to the SNP National Conference.” Perth, Scotland. October 20, 2012.
6. “The Referendum on Separation for Scotland: Terminating Trident—Days or Decades?” Fourth Report of Session 2012–13, House of Commons Scottish Affairs Committee. October 25, 2012. ect/cmscotaf/676/676.pdf.
Rob van Riet

About Rob van Riet

Rob van Riet is Coordinator of the Disarmament Programme at the World Future Council. In addition, he has been U.K. Coordinator of Parliamentarians for Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament (PNND) since 2011 and has served as the Director of the Nuclear Abolition Forum since its founding in 2011. He was a co-author of the InterParliamentary Union/PNND Parliamentary Handbook Supporting Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, released during the 127th Inter-Parliamentary Union Assembly in Quebec City, Canada, in October 2012.