7 February 2012

Would Scotland’s loss be the South West’s gain?

January 2012 marked the beginning of a long debate in Britain on Scottish independence, which will conclude with a referendum in 2014. Some complex problems are starting to emerge, among them an independent Scotland’s EU membership and what currency it would use. Another is the future of Scotland as a base for the Royal Navy’s nuclear submarines and the Trident nuclear deterrent. The four Vanguard class submarines with Trident operate from Faslane, part of Her Majesty's Naval Base (HMNB) Clyde in the Firth of Clyde. Their nuclear warheads are currently stored at a facility at Coulport, nearby. The MoD is constructing a jetty at Faslane for use by the Astute-class submarines after 2017. The deterrent issue was discussed at some length by William Walker, Professor of International Relations at St Andrews University, in an article in Scotland on Sunday on 8 January. He concluded:
A Conservative-led government will be inclined to take no chances. Preserving the nuclear deterrent and Westminster’s absolute power of decision will, when attention focuses, strengthen desires to engineer the Scottish government’s resounding defeat in the referendum. But it cannot fight its corner by arguing that Trident’s survival in Scotland is cause for rejecting independence. Nor can it argue that it will impose its will, come what may.
The nuclear issue, therefore, contains political traps for both Scottish and UK governments. Don’t be surprised if they treat it warily in the referendum campaign.
A few days later in the Financial Times (£), James Blitz reported a Ministry of Defence official as saying:
Coulport is a major piece of infrastructure and it would cost billions to replace. There would certainly have to be discussions about the cost of moving that infrastructure, which would be phenomenal.
The FT also quoted Professor Malcolm Chalmers of the Royal United Services Institute as saying that one of the biggest concerns facing the MoD after independence was that it would take about 10 years to build a replacement storage facility for the Trident warheads. He believed that London would have to ask the government of a newly independent Scotland to continue maintaining the deterrent at Faslane and Coulport for up to a decade.

The MoD seems to be reaching similar conclusions, according to James Kirkup in the Daily Telegraph on 27 January:
The Scottish naval base currently used to arm submarines with Trident nuclear missiles is the only site suitable for the task and building another could take up to a decade, ministers have been told.
… The MoD believes Faslane’s facilities could be replicated at an existing English naval base. But the Royal Naval Armaments Depot at Coulport is unique in the UK. It is equipped with highly specialised and sensitive equipment for safely moving missiles and warheads and incorporates hardened concrete bunkers to store them. A source said: “Berths would not be a problem – there are docks on the south coast that could be used without too much fuss. But there simply isn’t anywhere else where we can do what we do at Coulport, and without that, there is no deterrent.”
Though, to make sense of the first sentence above, presumably Kirkup’s source meant “there simply isn’t anywhere else [at present]”.

In 2001 Chalmers and Walker authored Uncharted Waters - The UK, Nuclear Weapons and The Scottish Question, which anticipated the problems which are now emerging (they thought independence would arise “in the next ten or twenty years”, page161). Trident is based on the Clyde because of decisions made in the early 1960s about its predecessor, Polaris. Their book was able to draw on documents released in the 1990s by the National Archives (formerly the Public Records Office) to explain why Polaris had been located at Faslane and Coulport, and why other locations on the UK’s Atlantic seaboard had been rejected. Among the latter were Portland, Devonport and Falmouth in South West England and Milford Haven in Wales, the rest being in Scotland. In this light Chalmers and Walker went on to examine the problems posed by relocating Trident outside Scotland after independence.

Chalmers and Walker concentrated on Devonport and Falmouth as the only possibilities. Devonport would take on the Faslane role with the Coulport capability being reproduced either there or near Falmouth. Drawing on the 1960s Polaris work, they anticipated considerable safety and planning problems at both locations and estimated the cost to be at least £B2 at 2000 prices. Having ruled out overseas basing, they came to the conclusion that relocation was implausible (page 120) and turned to examining continuance in Scotland and nuclear disarmament as the only options.

At this point it is worth noting that when Chalmers and Walker were writing, shortly after the 1998 Strategic Defence Review, the UK intended to hold a stockpile of less than 200 operationally available warheads (previously a maximum of 300). In the Blair government’s 2006 Defence White Paper, The Future of the United Kingdom’s Nuclear Deterrent, Cm 6994, this figure was reduced to fewer than 160, and the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review cut it further to no more than 120. There might therefore be scope for any replacement for Coulport being on a reduced scale in comparison to the current facility. As civil engineering projects go, it would be a much smaller undertaking than HS2 or a new airport in the Thames Estuary, “Boris Island”. Again encouragingly, The Times on 7 February (£) reported that senior civil servants will be required to attend a major projects leadership academy
:“The leadership academy will provide them with the skills and tools they need to manage these programmes successfully, ensuring they are delivered on time and on budget,” [Sir Bob Kerslake, the new head of the Home Civil Service] added. The academy will be managed by the Cabinet Office’s Major Projects Authority, which was set up in 2010 to oversee big schemes. It now looks after 200 projects that are worth about £400 billion.
One might wonder if acquiring these useful skills will reduce or increase staff turnover in the civil service, given recent data from the Institute for Government.

Returning to the question posed by this post’s title, obviously, if a long-term agreement to continue basing Trident in Scotland could be secured, there would be no possibility of any benefit to South West England. However, the Scottish National Party (SNP), in its booklet Your Scotland, Your Future, states:
We’ll get rid of nuclear weapons here in Scotland as part of our commitment to a world free of the nuclear threat.
We’ll fund and supervise the full range of public services, preserve and develop equality and human rights, and be responsible for our own foreign affairs, defence and security. That means we can remove nuclear weapons from our shores …
One can only wonder about the external diplomatic pressures that might be brought to bear on the SNP. France, like some other European countries, for domestic reasons has little sympathy for secessionist movements anyway. If Whitehall, as a consequence of Scottish independence, had to move towards nuclear disarmament, it would leave France as the only nuclear weapon state in Europe, a status which other countries like the US and Germany, and possibly France itself, might not welcome.

So, if the SNP secured a majority for independence and entered into negotiations, they might at least offer some form of transitional period for Whitehall to make other arrangements. But the RN remaining permanently would require the SNP to offer HMNB Clyde a status akin to the Cyprus Sovereign Base Areas (a model not considered by Chalmers and Walker). Even then, Trident replacement is expected to be in service until 2055 or so (Cm 6994 Table 7-1) and the question arises as to whether an independent Scotland might one day change its mind and renege on an agreement made back in 2015. Such a prospect might lead Whitehall to conclude that a new Trident base within 10 years was an unavoidable consequence of Scottish independence.

Implicit in Chalmers and Walker’s assessment was that Trident basing in the South West would be unpopular on safety and environmental grounds and that it might be detrimental to tourism, particularly in the Falmouth area. They conceded that:
The traditional association of Plymouth and Devonport with the Royal Navy could make sustained protest from local people less likely than at an alternative site. (page 111)
However, they made no assessment of the employment opportunities which rebasing might bring. According to Wikipedia, HMNB Clyde is the base for “3,000 service personnel, 800 of their families and 4,000 civilian workers”. [All] Some [-FIRST COMMENT BELOW] of these people (certainly their jobs) would move south along with the submarines they support. In the independence negotiations Scotland might aspire to a navy the size of Denmark’s, which, if half were based on the West Coast, could have about 1500 service personnel at Faslane (IISS The Military Balance 2011, page 100). So the apparent gross gain to the South West might have to be offset by the allocation of some RN elements, not all from HMNB Devonport, to the new Scottish Navy. Nonetheless the balance would be a considerable boost to the local economy in the South West which has suffered over the last twenty years from the reductions in defence expenditure after the end of the Cold War.

One consideration which, as far as I can tell, has not been much discussed, is the situation which David Cameron would be facing as Prime Minister in 2015, just before an election, if the 2014 referendum were to favour Scottish independence. The dissolution of a union going back to 1707, however historically significant, might in fact not carry a major political price. None of the other Westminster parties will have any alternative to offer and the English (and Welsh) electorates may  not be too sorry to see the back of the Scots by the end of the independence campaign. However, over the years opinion polls have shown a majority of the population believing that the UK should retain a nuclear deterrent. A Conservative PM would almost certainly want to avoid UK nuclear disarmament on his watch and brought about almost by default. He might be expected to pursue, or at least wish to be seen to be pursuing, whatever rebasing options are available.

There are, of course, other possibilities.  However, as Walker pointed out in his January 2012 article:
… the 2007 decision to replace Trident with a “like-for-like” system is already being reconsidered in Whitehall, creating options for relocation. A Cabinet Office study of alternative systems, presided over by a Liberal Democrat minister, is under way. But it lacks sincere backing across government. For the Conservative Party, it is a harmless concession to coalition partners uncomfortable with the replacement decision. In any case, its recommendations are unlikely to affect the nuclear force’s location. The options receiving most attention – a slimmed down Trident (three boats rather than four) and adaptation of the Astute-class submarines to take “dual-capable” missiles (carrying conventional and nuclear warheads) – would not rid Scotland of nuclear weapons.
And then there is the local political situation. The westernmost part of the South West England peninsula has long provided a core of seats for the Liberal Democrats, the other constituencies, with two exceptions in Plymouth and Exeter, returning Conservatives in the 2010 election. Proposed boundary changes would have been to the LD advantage in 2010, according to number-crunching by Guardian Datastore, (below).

If the LDs go into the next election with lower poll ratings than in 2010, the Conservatives will expect to take some of their seats. How the two parties would choose to play the possibility of Trident rebasing at Devonport to their own advantage is not easy to assess. On this particular issue, voters may be pulled one way by expectations of jobs and economic benefits and the other by their perceptions of the environmental impact and nuclear safety.  For sure, by then the LDs can be expected to be looking for opportunities to differentiate themselves from their coalition partners.

Coincidentally, David Cameron visited Plymouth on 3 February. According to the local paper:
About 150 Dockyard and Naval Base workers attended a ‘PM direct’ session where they put questions to Mr Cameron. He told them: “I am a strong believer in the nuclear deterrent. The work you do here is vital.” ...
Amid moves towards a Scottish independence referendum, the Prime Minister said: “Obviously I want Scotland to vote to stay in the United Kingdom. But if Scotland wasn’t in the United Kingdom, then defence facilities would have to be based within the United Kingdom, if I can put it that way.”
… the Prime Minister’s visit halted refit work on the Trident submarine HMS Vigilant. David Cameron and his party were allowed to tour the submarine in 9 Dock without safety equipment including hard hats, after work was stopped in some areas.
So, “Would Scotland’s loss be the South West’s gain?” Recent polling suggests that a majority of voters in Scotland do not want independence and, if this is sustained until the referendum, the possibility of any gain would not arise. Otherwise, if the UK sans Scotland is to continue to be a nuclear weapon state, there doesn’t seem to be much alternative to Trident at some point in the future operating from HMNB Devonport. A suitable armaments depot would have to be constructed there, or possibly in Cornwall, say by 2025. If this turns out to be not so much ‘implausible’ as impossible, something more radical might be adopted, but probably would not be revealed until after the 2015 election. Otherwise Trident’s removal from the Clyde ought to be of considerable long-term net benefit to the economy of the South West in the form of jobs, and expenditure by households and on base support.


On 16 February David Cameron gave a speech in Edinburgh making the case for the Union. The Times (£) report the following day included the following:
… The Prime Minister’s gambit of promising Scots more devolution came amid warnings that Britain’s nuclear deterrent would be put at risk if Scotland voted for independence. The cost of moving Britain’s four nuclear submarines from the Faslane base on the Clyde, along with stockpiles of warheads and missiles, could be £2.5 billion, according to former senior military commanders.
Admiral Lord West of Spithead, the former First Sea Lord, said that the enormous logistical challenge would help those arguing that the £20 billion Trident renewal should not go ahead.
“There must be a real possibility that it would be the final straw that breaks the camel’s back in keeping an independent deterrence,” he said. …


A newer post looks at the cost issue further.


Also see http://westernindependent.blogspot.com/2012/10/update-on-royal-navys-trident.html


  1. A thorough analysis! I have a few quibbles though.

    The 3,000 military and 4,000 civilian jobs are not all related to Trident and need not be co-located with the replacement for Faslane.

    Faslane plays host to one of the RN's two mine warfare squadrons. The logical new home for these ships, their crews and their supporting personnel (500-1000 all told) would be Portsmouth, where the other mine warfare squadron is already based.

    Faslane is also home to the Fleet Protection Group Royal Marines. If relocated, most of these 500-600 military personnel would most logically move to an existing RM or RN site in the south-west.

    As might easily have been predicted, the Falmouth Pilot and the mayor of Falmouth have expressed little support for the idea that a Coulport-style facility may be constructed somewhere on the Fal estuary. Portland is not the best option technically according to Chalmers and Walker, but it may yet be picked to replace Coulport.

    1. Thank you for this comment, and I have amended my post accordingly. I expect that some time in the next 18 months the relevant official figures will be released to inform the debate. As soon as the details start to emerge, as touched on in your comment, the more obvious it is that Scottish independence would not be in the interests of the people of these islands, whatever it might do for the egos of a few politicians.