The renewal of Trident looks set to be the final act of Cameron's premiership but, says William Walker, it's a decision likely to have complex and long-running implications.
In the effort in 2007 to win parliamentary support for Trident’s renewal, the government told the House of Commons that its consent would be sought for a second time when the submarines’ manufacture was ready to begin (passing from Initial Gate to Main Gate in the jargon). In 2011, the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition announced that the Main Gate decision would be brought before Parliament in 2016.
The Conservative government has tried to wriggle out of this commitment in two ways since winning the 2015 general election. First, it has asserted that the submarines’ manufacture involves not one but a series of decisions, with contracts issued step by step. The ‘Main Gate’ does not therefore exist. Second, it has tried to wrest from Parliament the right to decide on the project’s future. The Strategic Defence and Security Review of November 2015 states that ‘We will hold a debate on the principle of Continuous At Sea Deterrence [CASD] and our plans for Successor [the submarine programme’s new title]’. This is not the same as debating and voting on the project’s continuation.
A review of the Trident project might be expected in the aftermath of the EU referendum. Faced with the impending deterioration of public finances, it would join HS2, Hinkley Point and Heathrow’s third runway on a list of megaprojects subject to reassessment. Above all, the government could no longer ignore the possibility – even the likelihood – that Scotland would hold another independence referendum, win it and become a sovereign state long before the submarines’ completion. Why risk spending billions of pounds on Trident when Faslane and Coulport might no longer be available?
There will be no review. David Cameron informed the NATO summit in Warsaw that a vote will be held on 18 July 2016 ‘to confirm members of parliament’s support for the renewal of four nuclear submarines capable of providing round-the-clock cover’, implying a debate on CASD. The decision to proceed would be used to show the UK’s determination to remain a great power with central role in NATO and the defence of Europe and the West. Like Tony Blair in 2007, securing Trident’s future will be the gesture that ends Cameron’s premiership. He knows that he can rely on the Conservative Party’s majority in the House of Commons and the support of several Labour MPs to win the vote against any opposition, including that expressed by 58 of the 59 Scottish MPs elected in 2015.
In October 2015, I wrote in the journal Survival that ‘if consents are given and contracts issued in 2016 for the Trident weapon system’s manufacture, the UK government will find itself driven to protect the decision’s irreversibility over the medium and long terms. It will be making commitments to live with Trident’s opportunity costs and, absent a revolution in Scottish attitudes, coerce political Scotland into accepting that the UK’s new nuclear submarines will be based there for their lifetime [into the 2060s], come what may.’
Calling a spade a spade, Scotland now faces the prospect of being doubly coerced. Into leaving the EU, and into providing bases for the UK’s nuclear weapons, in perpetuity and against its democratic will in each case.
By opposing Trident, the Scottish government nevertheless finds itself on the horns of a dilemma. Its main objective is now to persuade foreign capitals to recognize and redress the injustice of Scotland’s threatened removal from the EU after the vote for Brexit. However, it learned during the Scottish referendum that French and US (especially) qualms about Scotland’s indepenmence stemmed in significant part from their objection to the SNP’s policy on Trident. That objection will not have gone away, given concerns about Russian aggression and perceptions of the West’s weakness. As a result, the Scottish government’s desire to secure foreign support for its political goals, in the capitals that matter, is not easily reconciled with a policy to evict Trident, however much its stance may chime with international efforts to make progress on nuclear disarmament.
A concession would help to quell foreign objections. The Scottish government could signal that, post-independence, it might allow the current Vanguard submarines to operate out of Faslane and Coulport until the end of their operating lifetimes (now in the 2030s), while disallowing access to the new Successor submarines. Viewed from abroad, this would be a reasonable compromise. The UK and its nuclear allies would have fifteen or more years in which to relocate the nuclear force in England, Wales or elsewhere (King’s Bay in Georgia might be the best option).
Although this concession would encounter resistance in Scotland, it would probably be accepted as a quid pro quo for the attainment of other essential goals. Whether the UK government would respond is another matter. Hitherto, it has been unwilling to consider any long-term future for Trident that does not involve Faslane and Coulport. Since 2007, Whitehall has displayed a dogged refusal to engage in contingency planning should Scotland become independent.
With so much at stake, it would be irresponsible for the UK government – and the Conservative Party – to claim that Scotland’s political future is irrelevant to the decision being debated on 18 July. It owes Britain, and allies abroad, an explanation of how the deterrent will be protected against the possibility of Scotland’s departure from the UK. Is Scotland’s coercion the only remedy?