“Don’t bargain yourself down before you get to the table.” – Carol Frohlinger
At the weekend I gave a talk to Yes Edinburgh North & Leith on the subject of splitting the UK’s debts and assets in the event of Scottish independence. It was based on my 2016 paper Claiming Scotland’s Assets and my recent episode of the Common Weal Policy Podcast but during it someone asked a very interesting question that I’d like to explore here. What happens to Faslane and the UK’s nuclear weapons when Scotland becomes independent and what is the prospect for Scotland “renting” the base until things can be moved elsewhere?
Nukes in an Independent Scotland
It should be beyond question that Scotland will be a non-nuclear state. From the legalistic argument that a new country like Scotland could not ratify the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons with any expectation of actually controlling them, through the practicalities of a country the size of Scotland maintaining such a program, through to the sheer inhumanity of even considering the idea of an independent Scotland controlling weapons of mass civilian slaughter this isn’t a argument of any note. Indeed, many on the pro-independence campaign (including myself) cite the removal of nuclear weapons from Scottish territory to be a significant motivator in their desire for independence. These weapons do not “protect” Scotland but instead make us a target – a fact that Philip Hammond indirectly made when talking about North Korea in 2016 even if he didn’t clock on to the hypocrisy of his own words.
But no-one really talks about Scotland owning such weapons. Instead, the question revolves around the question of what the UK does if it loses ownership of its main nuclear weapons bases.
When Scotland becomes independent the remaining UK will have to consider its options with regard to its nuclear capability. Moving the weapons to another base is not going to be easy or cheap as facilities elsewhere would have to be built up and existing ports in the rest of the UK are less ideal and would face the prospect of significant backlash from nearby population centres who would – in a very real sense – be placed in the nuclear firing line vacated by Scotland.
A 2014 report from RUSI stated that the two most likely options for replacing the facilities at Faslane and Coulport would be Devonport in England and Kings Bay Naval Base in the US. The latter has strategic concerns as a permanent solution (What happens if the UK finds itself in a nuclear war and the US denied access to its base?) and the former could cost in excess of £3.5bn at 2013 prices (£4bn at 2018 prices) to upgrade. It could also be expected to take ten to fifteen years to complete construction.
With the prospect of another Scottish referendum as soon as 2021 and with the negotiations and transition to independence likely to take around three years, it seems that there may not be time for the UK to complete that construction and move house. Other options must therefore be considered.
If the UK was treating the Non-Proliferation Treaty as it is intended and in good faith as a ratifier of that treaty then it would be celebrating this aspect of Scottish independence as a central pillar of the Treaty is that nuclear states should take active steps towards denuclearisation. The UK should not even be considering replacing the current fleet of submarines but should be phasing out and giving up its nuclear capability. There’s no real need for it anyway. A nuclear first strike by the UK would be an act of barbarism that no politician should ever contemplate much less gloat about
And a nuclear second strike would either be almost impossible or an act – at best – of petty revenge in a war already lost (even with a submarine permanently at sea, there’s no reason to believe that a strike on the UK would not destroy or render unusable the existing bases and the berthed fleet).
And there’s no use for strategic nuclear weapons in a non-nuclear fight either – as Yes Prime Minister pointed out, these weapons do not deter against conventional attacks.
And if a nuclear attack comes from a non-state actor (it’s not inconceivable that a terrorist group could pack a nuke into a shipping crate and get it onto the UK during the chaos of a No Deal Brexit where an overwhelmed customs agency is waving through crates without checking them) then whom does the UK nuke in retaliation?
Recognising the uselessness of these weapons, the UK could and should take the opportunity to save itself the hassle and the expense of moving and begin disarming. This could be done comparatively quickly. Scottish CND have calculated that the weapons could be made safe within a couple of weeks and removed from Scotland within two years. Final disarmament would then take another couple of years but the act of removing the weapons from Scotland would be well within the independence timetables.
A “Temporary” Stay
But it is unlikely that the rUK will be this sensible or civilised. It will want to keep its atomic toys and the global standing that it wants and thinks these horrors will grant them. It will likely continue to pretend that it can meaningfully engage in multilateral disarmament without actually disarming itself or even engaging in discussions meaningfully.
And it may be that the Scottish Government simply isn’t brave enough to demand the removal of the weapons nor to make the first act of an independent Scotland be the signing of the Treaty on the Prohibition Nuclear Weapons which would prohibit them within Scottish territory at all.
It may be that both government could seek to come to an accommodation whereby Faslane and Coulport are either retained as rUK territory or, more likely, are leased to rUK for an annual rent on a temporary basis until new facilities can be constructed.
This is the core of the question asked in the opening of this article and I want to warn against it as an option. I believe that engaging with this option will end up with Scotland remaining a permanent nuclear target – even more so as, in time, many of the civilians in the firing line would no longer be “British”.
As Claiming Scotland’s Assets points out, “immovable” public assets like military bases tend to be allocated to new independent states on a territorial bases – that is, so long as Scotland doesn’t actively cede Faslane as Scottish territory then Scotland will take control of it. This was the accepted reasoning in 2014 when the Scotland’s Future White Paper envisaged Faslane becoming the Joint Command HQ of Scotland’s military forces.
(The question of converting the base for this use and who pays for cleaning up and decontaminating the base after years of questionable nuclear activities is perhaps the topic of another discussion)
But demands for the ceding of such bases have occurred in the past. When the USSR broke up, a debate around the future of the Baikonur space base in Khazakstan started from the principle that Russia would control it entirely but, despite a strong campaign within Khazakstan on nationalistic and environmental grounds with the aim of claiming and shutting down the base, agreement was eventually reached where Russia would pay an annual rent of $115 million to Khazakstan on a ten year lease.
This lease has been a constant diplomatic thorn in the side of relations between the two states and Russia has been investigating building new bases for its space program although current programs have been designed only for unmanned launches.
In 2004 the ten year lease was renewed and currently runs out to 2050. Unless Russia has built a new base for manned launches by then, I think that it is almost inevitable that another extension will be granted. And herein lies the rub for Scotland and Faslane. I can foresee these negotiations going one of two ways. What should Scotland charge the rUK as rent and what are the consequences of the number chosen?
One result of negotiations is that the annual rent ends up being quite low compared to the cost of moving. Aside from the £4 billion price tag, the political consequences of moving the nukes to Devonport may be higher than the monetary value and the UK could end up becoming quite content with paying a few hundred million pounds per year to Scotland INSTEAD of moving the base. Even a temporary ten year lease signed on Independence Day could have a way of being renegotiated for another ten years and then another or it could simply be negotiated “for the life of the existing system” and then transferred to the replacement one after that or, if Scotland’s negotiating team does a REALLY poor job, it could be leased to the rUK “until we no longer need it“.
The new Dreadnought-class nuclear submarines that will replace the current Vanguard fleet will have a 30 year lifespan. By this measure, a peppercorn rent of up to £130 million per year would be cheaper to the UK than the £4bn cost of building a new base and even that would be a small fraction of the projected £200 billion total cost of the weapons system itself.
In this scenario, Faslane never becomes Scotland’s military HQ, Scotland could never sign up to the Treaty On the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons though it could perhaps follow current SNP policy of happily joining NATO under the aegis of rUK’s support.
But Scotland would remain a nuclear target and, as stated before, could find itself even more expendable than it is now for almost no gain.
Scotland’s Nuclear Goldmine
The other end of the scale is for Scotland to play as hardball as it can and recognise that it has an rUK with nuclear ambitions over the proverbial barrel. It could well negotiate a rent right at the upper end of what rUK could afford and make sure the lease becomes quite the money-spinner for Scotland.
The Dreadnought program has a £10bn contingency fund attached to it. £300 million a year over 30 years would be enough to pay that to Scotland as Faslane rent. Even a rent of £1bn per year would only increase the costs of the entire program by 15% (a comparatively small overrun as military projects go) and £6.5bn per year (more than twice the sum allocated to Scotland as a share of the UK’s defence budget) would still only double the total cost over the 30 year lifespan. It might well be that the UK could be willing to pay anything within those bounds to keep nukes in Scotland.
And if it does…would Scotland want them to leave?
It’s a serious question. If the Scottish Government finds itself dependent on an annual payment of anything from hundreds of millions up to billions of pounds per year, would the argument for removal of the weapons become harder? Even a nominally anti-nuclear party like the SNP might find it difficult to not sign an extension agreement.
Again, Scotland would never be free of nuclear weapons and might even find itself with a government that WANTS to keep them. A truly terrifying thought.
Indeed, under current SNP independence policy, I can see precisely how this would be sold to voters.
Under current SNP policy – agreed at their conference in April 2019 – the policy on independence is to be guided by the Sustainable Growth Commission’s 2018 report.
As covered by myself in this paper and on this podcast, part of that report involves Scotland paying a £5.3 billion Annual Solidarity Payment annually to the UK. This payment would consist of £3 billion per year to pay interest on Scotland’s share of UK debt (despite not taking ownership of that debt and without scope for Scotland to ever pay off the UK), £1.3 billion to allow the UK to spend our Foreign Aid budget for us and £1bn for “shared services” where Scotland would “buy in” public services from the UK instead of building capability to run those services ourselves.
I can quite easily see Scotland sitting at the negotiating table and sliding that card over to the rUK as the “starting point”. Maybe then the rUK brings up the topic of Faslane and offers a peppercorn rent. Negotiations go back and forth of a bit and an agreement is eventually reached.
Later that day, the Scottish Government and Andrew Wilson stand up and declare that they had successfully negotiated the ASP down from £5.3 billion to just £4.3 billion. Instead of paying £3 billion a year in debt interest, we’d only pay £2 billion per year and Faslane would remain in rUK control for as long as the agreement lasts. “Indefinitely“, perhaps.
The question over leasing Faslane will undoubtedly come up again as we approach another independence referendum. It’s a worthy question to ask and a vital one to answer.
To be clear, my ambition is for Scotland to become a non-nuclear state and I believe that if Scotland can “strongly invite” rUK to become one by dint of independence then that act will be a force for good in the world that far outweighs anything that the Union has ever delivered.
The Scottish Government should start preparing for this now and start laying down its red lines for negotiations ahead of time. If it truly does want Scotland to be rid of nuclear weapons then it must consider this in the context of independence negotiations and discussions like control of Faslane. Quite apart from my personal views on the scourge of nuclear weapons, others will want to consider other paths – including that of a “temporary” lease and stay of execution on the removal of these weapons from Scotland.
But I would warn that history has shown that these “temporary” agreements have a way of becoming permanent and it will take a strong hand at the tiller to ensure that Scotland doesn’t steer itself into a nuclear harbour that it can’t leave…and might not even want to.