Q&A: British MP Presses Scots on How Quickly U.K. Nukes May be Banned

The British ballistic missile submarine HMS Vengeance. A House of Commons committee chairman is pressing the Scottish governing party to specify how quickly it would expel the U.K. nuclear deterrent from a potentially independent Scotland (Royal Navy photo).
The British ballistic missile submarine HMS Vengeance. A House of Commons committee chairman is pressing the Scottish governing party to specify how quickly it would expel the U.K. nuclear deterrent from a potentially independent Scotland (Royal Navy photo).

WASHINGTON -- The chairman of a key U.K. parliamentary committee is pressing Scottish leaders to clarify how quickly they would expel British nuclear weapons if a 2014 referendum results in Scotland becoming an independent nation.

All four U.K. ballistic missile-armed submarines currently use Scotland’s Faslane port on the River Clyde’s Gareloch as home base. Warheads are stored and mated with the missiles at Coulport, eight miles away on Loch Long.

The Scottish ruling party in October declared that if it retained power and won the popular referendum, Scotland would “negotiate the speediest safe transition of the nuclear fleet from Faslane." It has not elaborated on what that might entail.

In a letter sent recently to a top government figure in Scotland, U.K. lawmaker Ian Davidson asked if the Scottish National Party accepts his panel’s assessment that “Trident warheads could be deactivated in a matter of days and removed safely from Scotland within 24 months, and whether you believe that this timetable would constitute the speediest safe transition of nuclear weapons from Scotland.”

Davidson’s Select Committee on Scottish Affairs in October released a report spelling out the plausible timing. The House of Commons panel concluded that “such speedy action would inevitably create the prospect of unilateral nuclear disarmament being imposed upon the Royal Navy and U.K., since the construction of facilities elsewhere could take upwards of 20 years.”

The British government opposes the idea of an autonomous Scotland and has ruled out any possibility that the United Kingdom would unilaterally disarm.

“Independence will certainly mean an end to the stationing of nuclear weapons in Scotland,” SNP chief and Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond said in a commentary published in Saturday’s Washington Post. “This will merely put Scotland in the same non-nuclear category as 25 of the [NATO] alliance’s current 28 members.”

Global Security Newswire recently asked Davidson to discuss his committee’s ongoing efforts to identify implications of possible Scottish separation from the United Kingdom. Davidson, 62, is a member of the Scottish Labor Co-operative and has represented Glasgow in the U.K. Parliament since 1992. Excerpts of the Nov. 2 telephone interview follow.

GSN: Do you support the idea that Scotland should secede from the United Kingdom?

Davidson: No. I’m a member of the Labor Party. The Labor Party is opposed to secession or separation.

We believe simply to say “independence” doesn’t give people the clear understanding that this would be the separation of Scotland from the rest of the United Kingdom. And obviously the United Kingdom would carry on, but Scotland would then be a separate country.

[If] the SNP [wins] power after the referendum, [they] ought now to be telling people what the consequences of voting “yes” to separation would be.

I am opposed to separation. However, we want to, in this exercise, put the full facts before the people.

GSN: From your perspective, you would prefer to see the ramifications play out over the decades for Trident, rather than days?

Davidson: Well, at the moment I am doing two things: One is as an individual MP and member of the Labor Party, I’m campaigning against separation. But as chair of the Select Committee, I’m trying to bring this information before [our] people in Scotland. I am trying to defeat separation rather than seeing what will happen after it.

And therefore I’m not expressing a view as to whether or not it should be days or decades. That is for the Scottish government to say which it should be.

GSN: As a member of Parliament, is it your view that if Scotland does separate, it should expel nuclear-armed submarines?

Davidson: If Scotland decides to vote for separation on the basis that it expels Trident, there will then be a process of negotiations. Now, if they expel Trident speedily, then that is likely to sour relationships with the United Kingdom.

It’s likely to have implications for all sorts of other defense issues -- I mean, whether or not the U.K. places defense orders in Scotland, whether or not Scotland is able to use the pound.

The SNP … have voted for the policy to be that a sovereign SNP government will negotiate the speediest, safe transition of the nuclear fleet from Faslane. As far as we can see, that does actually mean the nuclear weapons being out within 24 months.

Now, we are trying now to get the SNP to clarify if that is what they mean.

GSN: Should an independent Scotland -- if it comes to that -- seek NATO membership?

Davidson: Well, I think that for a separate Scotland to seek to become a member of NATO -- if they have also said that while NATO’s nuclear weapons will be banned from Scotland and the U.K. would have to be unilaterally disarmed -- would obviously be a ridiculous position for them to be in.

If, on the other hand, Scotland said, “Our preference would be for nuclear weapons to be removed but we are prepared to give the U.K., say, decades to allow them to rebase at the facilities elsewhere,” then that’s obviously a different set of issues altogether.

I think it would be sensible for Scotland to remain in NATO. But whether or not NATO would want Scotland to be joining under the certain conditions they want to apply would be another matter. Which is why the SNP will have to spell out what it is that they’re after.

GSN: Do you think it might be worth considering the idea of giving the U.K. sovereign access to Faslane and Coulport during a years-long transition period?

Davidson: No, I think we see that that would be a very difficult option. Because clearly you would have to have not only sovereign access to the bases, you would have to have some sovereign access then to the waters, as well.

You know, the submarines would have to come and go. [There would have] to be an agreement whereby the Scottish government and the U.K. government agree that the bases are going to remain and that there’s then a joint responsibility for policing, security and everything else, rather than the U.K. being there, as it were, as an alien, external power.

GSN: So do you imagine that the base could remain a U.K. sovereign territory but naval access would be jointly patrolled?

Davidson: You couldn’t have … joint control of any sort of military base, because you couldn’t have one of two partners having to be in agreement before any action was taken.

So it would have to remain as a U.K., as it were, sovereign territory perhaps -- or a lease or something similar. … There would have to be an agreement that the U.K. was there.

However, it would have to be controlled jointly over access, egress and the like. … You couldn’t have U.K. sovereign control over that, because obviously the waters would be needed for other things, as well.

GSN: How did it work when the U.S. Navy used the Scottish facilities at Holy Loch for basing nuclear-armed submarines from the early 1960s to early 1990s?

Davidson: There was an agreement, as I understand, that pretty much Holy Loch was the equivalent of U.S. sovereign territory and there was an agreement about access. But it was mainly the responsibility of the U.K. to police all the access.

I think [the United States] possibly had the inner ring of security, [where] the submarines went in and out, [whereas] the U.K. would be responsible for outer rings.

GSN: So that actually might be an interesting model going forward.

Davidson: Yes, but it all depends upon whether the Scottish government [is] willing to do that. And they have made a commitment at their annual conference -- when they decided that they wanted to join NATO -- to say that nuclear weapons had to be out as quickly as possible.

Now, clearly, given the “speediest” way in which nuclear weapons can be out, as we identified, is 20 to 24 months. Anything other than that is a change in [SNP] policy. And they have got to therefore make it clear whether or not they are going to change that policy.

Otherwise, everybody else has got to proceed on the basis that that’s what they intend. And therefore all these other things are hypothetical.

GSN: Do you agree with the U.K. government position that a continuous at-sea deterrent of at least one U.K. submarine on patrol must be preserved? Or do you think there’s an alternative?

Davidson: We’re not as a committee to decide whether or not we agree with the government policy. That is the government policy. The government policy is that these should be maintained.

And we are here as a group of parliamentarians in a committee saying we’ve got this immovable object and this irresistible force. And these two things are incompatible. So how are these going to be achieved?

GSN: Do you have a personal view on that?

Davidson: I’m not going to express a personal view, because you are interviewing me as chair of the committee.

GSN: Your committee reported that it knew of no U.K. government efforts to discuss with Scottish leaders possible contingency plans for nuclear weapons basing in the event of expulsion. Have you seen any indications of such an exploration of options at the Ministry of Defense, at least internally?

Davidson: I have seen no work at the Ministry of Defense internally, because I wouldn’t be allowed to wander about in the Ministry of Defense, picking up books and tables to see if there’s any work being done. [Laughs.]

However, it would be bizarre in the extreme to expect that nobody at all -- anywhere in the entire system -- was not thinking these thoughts.

What exactly they are thinking of, I am not completely clear. But they will presumably be exploring options.

And the government obviously has been giving some consideration to it, because one of the [former] defense ministers [Nick Harvey] did say, in our evidence, that if the missiles and the whole system had to be removed, then it would be an enormous cost. And the Scottish government would then fall liable for that, because that would have been a cost incurred by the rest of the U.K. because of the actions of the Scottish government.

Now, the Scottish government would obviously disagree with that. But the fact that they [in the Defense Ministry] were able to articulate that indicates that some thought had been given to it.

GSN: Have you seen any indications that the U.K. government is reaching out to the United States or to France to explore basing possibilities abroad?

Davidson: No. I think that the U.K. government’s public position is that it hopes and expects that Scotland will vote to remain part of the United Kingdom, and therefore these issues are hypothetical.

However, again, I would imagine it’s highly unlikely that somebody in the U.K. government or Ministry of Defense has not mentioned to somebody else in France or in the United States that these are live issues and therefore ought to be considered.

I would also imagine that the defense attaché at the American Embassy and the French Embassy would be aware of this happening and it being discussed in the U.K., and will communiqué this back. I mean, they would be asleep at the job if they haven’t.

GSN: We interviewed defense experts who thought that basing U.K. Trident submarines at Kings Bay, Ga., could involve huge logistical challenges in terms of all the steaming time back and forth between Britain and the United States. Do you agree that this is a concern?

Davidson: Well, it depends on the targeting and the range of the weapons. And I’m not sure whether or not a British nuclear submarine would be able to hit every conceivable target immediately [when] it leaves Kings Bay.

If it is possible for a British nuclear submarine to be anywhere in the world and still be able to hit its target, then presumably the question of steaming back and forward from Kings Bay is neither here nor there, since all they need to be is out there in the water somewhere.

Now you probably know more about the range of these missiles than I do, but that’s my instant reaction.

GSN: Well, I’m told that they have something like 4,000 nautical mile range. On the other hand, I’m not certain where your patrol areas are.

Davidson: Given the present discussions on the European Union, I would have thought that possibly the target is on Brussels. [Laughs.]

The whole point of targeting is it’s secret. So all of that will no doubt be taken into account.

But I think the bigger difficulty about Kings Bay is the whole question of undermining the credibility of this as being an independent nuclear deterrent.

If you make the submarines yourselves but have the missiles basically on loan or on rent from the USA; [if] we have our own warheads but we’re having to get them loaded in the U.S.; [and if] targeting has to be done in conjunction with the U.S. -- there comes an issue about to what extent is it actually independent of the U.S and to what extent is it just simply a puppet of the U.S.

So I think people in Britain would be very anxious about having that approach.

If it was the French, as well, there’s traditional half-in-jest, half-in-earnest animosity between the English, in particular, and the French.

The idea of having British nuclear weapons on French territory and having to be dependent upon the French, you would obviously spill over into a whole number of other issues, about relations having to do with the EU. I mean, would that be a bargaining tool that the French then use in arguments about EU funding?

So clearly having a third country involved in basing of nuclear weapons is not particularly desirable. But on the other hand, losing the use of your nuclear weapons altogether might be seen by the U.K. government as being even more undesirable.

And therefore, the least unacceptable might turn out to be the option that’s favored at the end of the day.

GSN: Norman Polmar, one U.S. naval expert with whom we spoke, said that Devonport on Britain’s southwest coast could be fine for basing the submarines, given that it offers sufficient water depth and security. He also said that the transfer of U.K. nuclear warheads onto Trident missiles could be safely accomplished at Devonport, without undue hazard to the population. Your view?

Davidson: I think it’s much easier to indicate the acceptability of basing them in Devonport when you’re in America than when you’re in the U.K. I think that people in Devonport would not welcome having nuclear weapons placed so close beside them.

The real issue is the question of the storage and the loading of the weapons. And I think there’s a general acceptance that would have to be in a relatively remote area in the however unlikely event of accident.

GSN: What portion of responsibility do you feel Scotland should bear for the financial costs of relocating Trident, if that becomes necessary?

Davidson: We as a committee do not have a view on [that].

What we have identified is that this is an issue. And that both the Scottish government and the U.K. government have got to clarify what the debate will be about.

If the U.K. government is saying, “Scotland has got to meet all the costs,” and the Scottish government are saying, “No, we don’t,” then I don’t know whether or not there’s a national legal precedent as to who pays in these circumstances. But if we got that clarified before the vote, people would then know [potentially] that a lot of other money could be spent on other things.

But if at all the cost falls on the U.K. government, then they don’t need to worry about that. So all of these things, we want to have fleshed out before the vote’s taken.

GSN: What is the next step for the United Kingdom to take at this point, regarding your report?

Davidson: The British government is obliged to respond to this [report within two months], so we know we’ll get a response from them.

GSN: And for the Scottish government, it would be more a voluntary response but you are seeking one?

Davidson: Yes, because we have no powers to make them respond.

Of course, politically, we will attack them if they don’t respond.

Because we will say, “Well, what are they hiding? What are they going to be afraid of?” We will say that people have got to know the facts before they vote.

December 10, 2012

WASHINGTON -- The chairman of a key U.K. parliamentary committee is pressing Scottish leaders to clarify how quickly they would expel British nuclear weapons if a 2014 referendum results in Scotland becoming an independent nation.