Submarine base will surface as issue if Scotland votes Yes

Scottish National Party insists missiles and submarines would have to go

The Royal Navy’s Trident-class nuclear submarine Vanguard: moving the UK’s nuclear deterrent out of an independent Scotland is not impossible and would probably cost far less than the tens of billions of pounds previously predicted, experts have suggested. Photograph: PA Wire

The Royal Navy’s Trident-class nuclear submarine Vanguard: moving the UK’s nuclear deterrent out of an independent Scotland is not impossible and would probably cost far less than the tens of billions of pounds previously predicted, experts have suggested. Photograph: PA Wire


Brightly coloured graffiti mark the caravans at the Faslane peace camp, which sits across the road from the Royal Navy’s Clyde naval base, the home of the UK’s nuclear missile submarine fleet.

The future of the base – and the heavily guarded Coulport missile storage depot 10 miles away – dominates much of the debate in Scotland’s independence referendum campaign.

The Scottish National Party, led by Alex Salmond, insists the submarines and missiles will be told to leave if Scots vote Yes to independence on September 18th.

The Faslane peace camp has existed for 32 years. It is “the world’s oldest”, says Collette McCaffrey, who lives in the camp with her children.

It has been argued for decades that the UK’s nuclear deterrent cannot be moved from Faslane and Coulport because of the expense and because nowhere else in Britain could, or would, want to take it.

Last week, the Royal United Services Institute, a British defence and security think tank, suggested, however, this might not be the case: the transfer, it suggested, could be managed for £3.5 billion (€4.38 billion).

Though a huge sum, it is trifling in the context of nuclear missiles – the planned replacement for Trident and the submarines would cost £100 billion and more if it is approved.

The submarines could go to Plymouth, while the warheads – which have to be stored separately – could be based outside Devonport, the institute argued.

Orderly transfer

However, it could not happen by 2020 – a deadline chosen by Salmond that would, if kept, let the SNP fight the next Holyrood election but one as the party that “got rid of Trident”. Instead, the Royal United Services Institute argued, an orderly transfer could happen by 2028, which would, coincidentally, chime with the arrival of the first of the replacement missiles and submarines.

Besides its deterrence value to the UK, supporters of Trident argue that Faslane is a major boon to the local economy, supporting thousands of jobs. Local Labour member of the Holyrood parliament Jackie Baillie puts the jobs in the region at 11,000 and says the SNP’s 1,800 is “out of touch”.

Under the SNP’s proposals, Faslane would become the Joint Force Headquarters for the new, 15,000-strong Scottish Defence Forces, which would have Tornado fighter-bomber jets and up-to-date frigates.

Local Yes Scotland campaigner Graeme McCormick, who ran for the SNP against Baillie in 2007, points to the fortunes of Helensburgh, the nearest town to the nuclear base. Helensburgh was once the favourite location of Glasgow’s wealthy. Today, its high street has a barren feel, it is full of charity shops and its Imperial hotel has closed. “Over 3,000 serving personnel are at Faslane, but 85 per cent of them don’t live here. They are a part of the community, but they live apart from us,” he says.

The local population has fallen by 2,000 people, according to the last census, while property prices that were once the equal of Glasgow’s wealthiest suburbs have slipped back.

Four Vanguard submarines are based at Faslane, one of which is always at sea armed with Trident missiles – the UK’s so-called “Continuous At Sea Deterrence”.

Under the navy’s current plans, Faslane would become its base for submarine operations by 2017, including the Trafalgar attack submarines currently based at Devonport.

Last week’s Royal United Services Institute report marks a significant change in tone for lead author Prof Malcolm Chamlers, who once argued that a transfer was practically impossible. Faslane was carefully chosen in the 1960s, offering deep-water access for the navy’s submarines directly into the Irish Sea and the North Atlantic.

Other locations were considered: Barrow-on-Furness in Cumbria, for example, has shallow approaches, which would limit the submarines to high monthly tides, or require billions to be spent on dredging. Milford Haven in Wales was also considered. It has deep water. Today, however, it is home to the UK’s biggest liquefied natural gas plant, so placing a nuclear base next to that would be impossible.

Falmouth in Devon was considered as a base for the missiles, but was ruled out because of its large population. The reason the base came to Scotland was because Faslane was far enough away from anything of value, while the economic boost helped to silence local doubters.

Logistical challenges

In last week’s report, Prof Chalmers argued that Devonport in Devon could become “the new Coulport” – the hardest part of the missile arm to relocate. Two years ago, however, he told a House of Commons inquiry: “Unless you are prepared to rehouse a very large number of civilians and close down areas of housing and so on, it limits where you can put [it].”

Back at Faslane’s peace camp, Collette McCaffrey says she does not believe much that anyone says, including the SNP’s declarations that most Scots want to get rid of Trident.

She notes that Salmond wants to be part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation if Scotland votes Yes.

“What does he want more? To be in Nato, or to be rid of Trident? Scots are against war and for world peace and against child abuse too, and I don’t see them doing a lot about that,” she says, dryly.

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