Scottish voters contemplate the nuclear option for Faslane's Trident fleet

Peace camp outside base since 1982 sees yes vote as ending UK's entire nuclear deterrent but electorate is more ambivalent

British military mulls implications of Scottish independence

One of the biggest targets for Scotland's independence campaign sits behind a high, intimidating wall of reinforced security fencing and curling banks of razorwire in the southern Highlands: Faslane naval base, home to Britain's nuclear missile fleet.

Stretched along the shoreline of a secluded sea loch underneath the gnarled mountains of Argyll, Faslane has been a focus for often large protests for decades. Tens of thousands of peace campaigners have laid siege to its gates, hacked at its fence and blocked nearby roads in protest; some have sneaked in by sea, once clambering inside a Trident submarine.

And in two weeks time, Scotland's voters may just decide to get rid of it.

Opinion polls suggest the independence movement may be on the brink of an extraordinary victory in the referendum on 18 September: after months of trailing the pro-UK campaign by at least 14 percentage points, two polls, by YouGov and Survation, suggest the yes campaign needs just a 3% swing to win.

And just as David Cameron prepares to welcome Nato leaders such as Barack Obama to the defence alliance's summit at Celtic Manor in Wales on Thursday, the independence campaign landed a significant coup.

Dame Mariot Leslie, the UK's most recent ambassador to Nato, disclosed she planned to vote yes. A former director general of defence and intelligence at the Foreign Office, Leslie wrote to the Scotsman newspaper to say she was "in no doubt" that Nato's 28 members would welcome an independent Scotland.

Leslie said: "There would be some tough negotiations over defence, nuclear and wider security questions." However, she added: "A democratic, non-nuclear Scotland with strong military and technological traditions would fit naturally alongside similar Nato members in northern Europe."Nato's formal position is that the referendum is purely a domestic issue, and not its concern. Leslie's letter and that poll may just force Scotland's referendum into the backroom discussions at Celtic Manor, squeezing in between the escalating crises in Ukraine, Iraq and Syria. There are peace campaigners, some from Scotland, camped outside the venue.

If Scotland does vote yes, Trident could leave the Clyde remarkably quickly, said Angus Robertson, Scottish National party defence spokesman at Westminster. The SNP have set a target of removing Trident from its base at Faslane and its nuclear warhead silos in a neighbouring loch by 2020, pledging to enshrine Scotland's anti-nuclear status in a new written constitution.

With his network of Whitehall contacts, Robertson is convinced that the Royal Navy and defence chiefs would want the fleet swiftly relocated into the security of another UK base, away from the sovereign territory of the new Scottish state.

"The position of the Scottish government is absolutely clear: following a yes vote, Trident will leave the Clyde as speedily as possible," he said.

"There is no room for any ambiguity. This is not just because it will be the settled will of the Scottish people in the referendum but also because Whitehall will wish to have 100% control of its nuclear deterrent."

For Jamie Watson, 32, a former trainee nurse, it would be a remarkable moment. One of a small group of people living at Faslane peace camp, which has continuously occupied a roadside verge near the base since 1982, Watson believes a yes vote could force the UK to abandon nuclear weapons entirely.

"This would be a challenge to the plans to replace Trident and another 50 years of nuclear weapons," he said. "It's very high stakes because we've now got to the prospect of real pressure being put on Westminster, to challenge what they're planning."

Faslane is the last to survive of a network of peace camps that sprang up after the Greenham Common cruise missile protests of the early 1980s. Over the last 30 years, a dense canopy of trees has grown to shade its ramshackle cluster of caravans, old buses, huts and makeshift toilets, many decorated with peace slogans and abstract murals. Some motorists toot their horns in salute as they drive by.

But Scotland's wider electorate is ambivalent about Trident. A large majority of Scottish MPs and MSPs oppose nuclear weapons, but the large Scottish Social Attitudes Survey opinion poll this year found 37% of voters support it, while 46% of voters oppose Trident; in 2012, an SNP poll found a similar split over whether the Scottish parliament should have the power to remove Trident from the Clyde, with less than half of voters agreeing.

In the nearby seaside town of Helensburgh, Faslane's future and its importance to the local economy is a dominant topic in the independence debate. Yes campaigners based in a pop-up Yes Scotland shop in a former bank insist that, unlike famous navy towns like Portsmouth and Plymouth, the base has only a modest impact on the local economy.

They show visitors a newspaper cutting stating that only 520 civilian jobs from the base's 6,700-strong navy and civilian workforce were wholly reliant on Trident.

They say most naval officers and crew either live on the base, entertained by in-house cinema, a bowling alley, pubs and swimming pool, or commute home to England after finishing a tour using discount airlines.

If Scotland becomes independent, Faslane would become its new joint military headquarters and naval base, protecting a large majority of its current jobs. Yet, while Robertson's insistence that Trident would be gone by the end of this decade, Yes Scotland activists tell local voters it may take up to 10 years.

Margaret Pollock, a retired dentist who organises the local yes campaign, said that 20 shops in the town were lying empty. "The contribution of the base to Helensburgh is a lot less than people might think," she said. Yes campaign meetings have been packed, with many locals far less concerned, she said. "We've had to turn people away at the door."

Michael Curley, who runs the Buffet Shop cafe and deli near Yes Helensburgh's headquarters, is a committed no voter. With more than 30 plaques honouring Royal Navy submarines and warships strung along the cafe's wall, Curley disputes the yes camp's claims.

Thousands of the base's civilians workers live in the area and, if Scotland votes no, Faslane will become the UK's only submarine base in 2017, becoming home to the Astute hunter-killer fleet too. Those would be lost with independence.

"What we have at Faslane and Coulport is a massive recession-free industrial estate, albeit one which is closely guarded," Curley said. "We have a unique situation: not only is it recession-free, it's going to grow because they're going to bring new submarines up. Personnel will jump up by another 3,000."

Outside Helensburgh – a town even Pollock admits is likely to vote no on 18 September, Trident plays a major role in the independence debate.

Defence analysts and foreign diplomats believe Alex Salmond's government is prepared to negotiate about when Trident leaves Scotland, to win major concessions on Scotland's currency options or on UK support for its EU membership. There is a curiously ambiguous phrase in Salmond's independence white paper, Scotland's Future, which says it will press for Trident to leave "with a view" to that happening by 2021.

Prof Malcolm Chalmers co-wrote a recent Royal United Services Institute report which that said it would cost a relatively modest £3bn-£4bn to rehouse Trident in an English port, such as Devonport, but that could take until 2028 when the current Trident fleet is due to be replaced.

He believes Salmond will concede that. "The Scottish government has already accepted the principle of maintaining Trident after independence for four years. It's hard to believe the Scottish government would be ready to sacrifice other important objectives, like UK support for its EU membership, simply for an artificially driven timescale."

But Robertson insists Trident's removal is simply not negotiable. "You can ask the question in 43 different ways and you're just going to get the same answer: there is no ambiguity, there's no signal, there's no balloon being floated in any way. This is going to happen, as quickly as we can make it happen."


Severin Carrell, Scotland correspondent

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Alex Salmond accused of misleading voters over Trident base promises
Both political opponents and allies of Scottish government say pledge to join Nato is at odds with stance on nuclear disarmamant

Severin Carrell, Scotland correspondent

15, Aug, 2013 @1:02 PM

Article image
Scottish Greens seek citizen's wage, halt to oil drilling and Trident nuclear ban
'Green Yes' campaign for Scottish independence also proposes state-owned renewable energy, land tax, and cheaper childcare

Severin Carrell, Scotland correspondent

15, Nov, 2013 @3:44 PM

Article image
Independent Scotland would not house Trident missiles, says Alex Salmond
Scotland's first minister rejects suggestion that UK could keep nuclear weapons on Clyde if Scotland voted for independence

Severin Carrell, Scotland correspondent

21, Oct, 2012 @11:18 AM

Article image
Alex Salmond told nuclear ban out of line with being in Nato
First minister faces questions over defence policy after Scotland secretary says Nato's nuclear stance is finite

Severin Carrell, Scotland correspondent

15, Aug, 2013 @6:20 PM

Article image
The case for Trident is absurd. Scotland may help us get rid of it | Simon Jenkins
Simon Jenkins: Prestige, not defence, is the only reason to keep this £100bn albatross. We may yet give thanks for Alex Salmond’s posturing

Simon Jenkins

15, Aug, 2014 @6:00 AM

Article image
Independent Scottish defence force plans spark political row
Alex Salmond accused of hypocrisy over plans for single Scottish airbase months after he campaigned to keep three

Severin Carrell, Scotland correspondent

20, Jan, 2012 @11:37 AM

Article image
Scottish Labour votes to ditch Trident renewal
Vote strengthens Jeremy Corbyn in seeking nuclear debate, as delegates back scrapping of weapons project if there is investment in jobs for laid-off workers

Severin Carrell Scotland editor

01, Nov, 2015 @2:43 PM

Article image
Scottish independence would be disastrous for all UK, warns John Major
Former prime minister says loss of Trident nuclear programme would imminently weaken UK defence after yes referendum result

Nicholas Watt, Libby Brooks and Patrick Wintour

10, Sep, 2014 @9:06 AM

Article image
The SNP says it would kick Trident out of Scotland. But at what cost? | Ian Jack
Ian Jack: Faslane and its surrounds could be economically devastated if Trident were removed. Would an SNP government really be able to keep that promise?

Ian Jack

07, Sep, 2012 @9:30 PM

Article image
Independent Scotland could join Nato, say SNP sources

SNP is believed to be considering scrapping opposition to Nato membership as part of radical shakeup of defence strategy

Severin Carrell, Scotland correspondent

01, Mar, 2012 @5:48 PM