The UK’s coalition government insists that independence for Scotland would not result in the UK abandoning its nuclear weapons even though finding alternatives to the current nuclear bases on the Clyde estuary would have a “huge cost” and would be an “enormous exercise”.
The government’s determination to retain nuclear weapons is spelt out in a hard-line response to suggestions from the House of Commons Scottish Affairs Committee that a vote for Scottish independence could lead to the abandonment of the UK’s Trident nuclear weapons programme.
The Coalition’s response to the Committee asserts that the government does not intend to pre-negotiate the consequences of Scottish independence, stating “we confident that the people of Scotland will choose to remain part of the UK and are not planning for Scottish independence or to move the strategic nuclear deterrent from Her Majesty’s Naval Base Clyde” – a line consistently taken by Ministers since plans for a referendum on Scotland’s independence were unveiled.
The UK government “has no plans to unilaterally disarm” and so there would be “time and cost implications” if an independent Scotland was to demand the removal of UK nuclear weapons from Scottish soil. However, removing Trident from the Clyde would cost “billions of pounds and take many years” and the government says itis “impossible to estimate” how much it would cost to replicate existing infrastructure at an alternative base in England or Wales.
The government states that possible scenarios for negotiating a basing agreement with the Scottish Government or any other nation “will not be discussed prior to the outcome of the referendum”. Operations from a submarine base overseas would “greatly compromise the independence of the deterrent” and would face “significant political and legal obstacles”. The facilities needed to base Trident overseas “do not exist in France and to use facilities at King’s Bay in Georgia USA would present a complex logistic and cost challenge”.
The UK government claims that HMNB Clyde currently employs around 6,700 personnel, projected to increase to around 8,200 by 2022. Were Trident to leave Scotland, “there would be no question but that the entirety of the submarine enterprise on the Clyde would be relocated”. Whitehall believes “it is for the Scottish Government to explain how this quality and quantity of employment in the region would be matched if the enterprise had to be relocated”.
The Scottish Government has made clear that if voters chose independence in the 2014 referendum, British nuclear weapons would be removed from Scotland. This would be “non-negotiable”. In a report published in October 2012 the Scottish Affairs Committee concluded that “nuclear weapons in Scotland could be disarmed within days and removed within months”.
The Committee – which does not include any representatives from the Scottish National Party – has welcomed the UK government’s reminder of the “stark choice” facing Scotland in relation to the Royal Naval facilities on the Clyde, and called on the Scottish Government to clarify the timescale under which Trident would be removed from an independent Scotland, how job losses would be dealt with, and the costs of relocation and clean-up for the existing nuclear bases.
Although the UK government has said it is“confident that the people of Scotland will choose to remain part of the UK, and is not planning for any other outcome”, the chair of the Scottish Affairs Committee, Ian Davidson MP, told BBC Radio Scotland: “The UK government isn’t being entirely open with us – it is quite clear that they are making contingency plans – that is prudent management”.