The British government does not expect the people of Scotland to vote for
independence in next year’s referendum, according to the defence secretary,
Philip Hammond. In this expectation he may well be right. Nevertheless, the old
saying about counting chickens from un-hatched eggs comes to mind. If the
Ministry of Defence had wanted to hand a winning card to the Scottish National
Party his department could hardly have done better than to suggest that in the event
of a vote in favour for independence Britain might declare the Faslane
submarine base a British “sovereign territory” as they did with the military
base in Cyprus in the 1960s. The mentality of colonial arrogance dies very
hard. But, as all three main parties at Westminster are strongly opposed to
Scottish independence, the MOD’s faux pas has caused some consternation in the
ranks of government and opposition. Former Labour chancellor, Alistair Darling,
who heads the cross-party pro-union campaign “Better Together” immediately
rubbished the idea, describing it as “complete nonsense, misconstrued and
misguided.” The government very quickly back tracked. But the damage had
already been done. The anti-independence lobby is thrown back on the
“confident” expectation that the people of Scotland will vote no and that the
future will remain secure for the multi-billion upgrading of Trident, estimated
in 2009 to cost £97 billion over 30 years. The monster will stay in the loch despite the
unremitting hostility of the Scottish people to its presence there.
But what if Scotland votes for independence? It seems inconceivable that the SNP would be able to renege on one of its most popular policies – to make Scotland nuclear-free; to get rid of Trident and close the Faslane base. Either the base would have to be re-located at enormous expense to somewhere in England or Wales (Devonport, Barrow-in-Furness and Milford Haven have been mentioned), or Trident would have to be scrapped and not replaced. Prior to the last election, the Liberal Democrats were committed to scrapping Trident, but they wanted to replace it with some alternative based on cruise missiles. Labour, like the Tories, will keep Trident but scale down the number of Vanguard submarines that carry it from four to three. This, say the critics, will reduce the “deterrent” capacity which requires four subs to maintain continuous “at sea deterrence”. As Britain’s “nuclear deterrent” has, since 1968 been submarine based, closing down Faslane would call into serious question the country’s future as a nuclear power. All three main Westminster parties are committed to retaining nuclear weapons. There has never been a serious attempt to justify a policy which, even at the height of the cold war, made no sense. For the past twenty three years, in the absence of the dubious cold war rationale, retention of the “nuclear deterrent” is even more glaringly indefensible.
It has been argued before in this column that Britain’s “independent nuclear deterrent” is neither independent nor a deterrent. It would be more accurate to describe it as a dependent nuclear non-deterrent. It is dependent crucially on the United States. The missiles are loaned from the U.S. and serviced by the Kings Bay submarine base in Georgia. Some key components of the warheads are produced in the U.S. Operationally the missiles are dependent on U.S. satellite navigational systems and it is highly unlikely that a British prime minister would be able to take any decision for their use independently of the U.S. When it comes to “deterrence” we enter the realm of ideology and propaganda. During the cold war it might have been argued with some plausibility that the policy of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) may have deterred the United States and the Soviet Union from unleashing nuclear weapons against each other. Before the proliferation of nuclear weapons began in 1964, only four states possessed them – the U.S.A., the USSR, the U.K. and France. Even from the standpoint of cold war orthodoxy, there was never a convincing argument for British or French possession of nuclear weapons. In both cases the decision was taken in order to maintain the pretense of great power status to disguise the irreversible weakness both countries had suffered by the end of World War Two. Possession of nuclear weapons enabled them to retain the illusion of their earlier imperial grandeur vis a vis the two new super powers. At least in France’s case, De Gaulle’s Force de Frappe was independent of the United States – a fact that did not endear the General to Washington. Whether it deterred anyone from attacking France is another question.
David Cameron’s recent claim that “to axe Trident would put us in danger”, is risible. Without Trident why would Britain be in any more danger than, for example, Germany, Italy, Spain or Norway? Is he really claiming that the Vanguard submarines patrolling the oceans from Faslane are crucial for the defence of Europe and the rest of the world? And defence against whom? Russia? Iran? The Taliban? Al Qaida? He seemed to suggest recently that Britain’s territorial security was threatened by North Korea. Cameron, and those like him who substitute threadbare platitudes for reasoned discourse, insult the intelligence of those they want to persuade. There is no serious attempt to explain how nuclear armed submarines on round the clock patrol will be effective in deterring unspecified and diverse “enemies” from launching nuclear attacks on Britain. All on the assumption, of course, that there are such elements with the ability to do so.
There has for more than twenty years been a similar failure to give any plausible explanation for the continued existence of NATO. NATO was formed on the initiative of the U.S. in 1948 at the beginning of the cold war. The supposed justification for the alliance rested on the assumption that the Soviet Union was straining at the leash to over-run the whole of Western Europe. The other U.S. led alliances that followed in its wake – CENTO and SEATO were clearly aimed at stemming the tide of national liberation movements in the Middle East and South East Asia rather than at checking any perceived Soviet expansion in those areas. When, at the end of the cold war, the Soviet Union and the communist-ruled states of Eastern Europe collapsed, the Warsaw Pact (established under Soviet direction) ceased to exist. Had NATO existed, as its defenders claimed, only to defend Western Europe against a perceived Soviet threat, it would have been wound up after 1991.Why wasn’t it? Another explanation for maintaining the alliance had to be found.
The break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1980s and 90s gave the U.S. and its allies a new cause for which NATO would be a very convenient instrument: liberal intervention to defend democracy and prevent genocide. The Balkan crisis certainly witnessed some appalling atrocities in which none of the various participants had an unblemished record. But the NATO intervention was largely blind to any of them except those committed by Serbs. The outcome of the Balkan crisis was the disintegration of a state – Yugoslavia – that had existed as a stable, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural entity for more than forty years. And its replacement by a patchwork of intensely nationalistic states in which ancient enmities, religious and ethnic - have been resurrected. The twelve year-long NATO intervention in Afghanistan has been an unmitigated disaster, leaving thousands dead, and will without doubt result in the triumphant return of the Taliban shortly after the Western powers withdraw. The preservation of NATO can only be understood as an instrument of Western – predominantly - U.S., global hegemony.
It is unfortunate that some of the subordinate members of the alliance seem unaware of this. The SNP, which wants an independent, nuclear-free Scotland, nevertheless wants Scotland to remain a member of NATO. This is an inconsistent position. Should the Scottish people, who are overwhelmingly in favour of getting rid of Trident, vote yes to independence in next year’s referendum, there will be enormous pressure, not only from Westminster but from Washington, brought to bear on the SNP government to renege on their commitment to rid Scotland of nuclear weapons. Most likely continued membership of NATO will be used as a bargaining counter. Between now and the referendum it would be encouraging to see, as part of the campaign for independence, a demand not only to stick to the commitment on Trident, but also for an independent Scotland to withdraw from NATO.