The international Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) opened for signatures in 1968, and entered into force in 1970. Since then, a total of 190 parties have joined the Treaty, including the five 'declared' nuclear-weapon states (USA, Russia, UK, China, France). The foundation of the NPT agreement is that: "the NPT non-nuclear-weapon states agree never to acquire nuclear weapons and the NPT nuclear-weapon states in exchange agree to share the benefits of peaceful nuclear technology and to pursue nuclear disarmament aimed at the ultimate elimination of their nuclear arsenals".
In the forty-plus years since the establishment of the NPT, there has been limited progress on nuclear disarmament. Currently, the five declared nuclear weapons states still have 22,000 warheads in their combined stockpile and none are showing much enthusiasm about disarming further, despite their Cold War anxieties being long consigned to the pages of history. Indeed, UK Prime Minister David Cameron has just this month invoked the current tensions in the Korean peninsula to defend the renewal of the UK's Trident nuclear deterrent.
Proposals to replace the Trident system were passed by the House of Commons by a majority of 248 in March 2007, and all of the major UK parties are agreed on the need for a UK nuclear deterrent – this despite Greenpeace estimating the actual cost of building and operating Trident's replacement at around £100bn. However, into this scene of cosy establishment consensus, an actor has entered who could yet pull the rug from under the feet of the London-based parties and produce an unexpectedly dramatic dénouement which will be felt all around the world.
The actor is, of course, the decision by the devolved Scottish government to hold a referendum of the Scottish electorate on the issue of independence from the United Kingdom. Due to take place on 18 September 2014, the referendum places a unique opportunity into the hands of the people of Scotland – the disarmament of one of the five declared nuclear-weapon states.
So, how would independence for Scotland mean the nuclear disarmament of the UK? Simple: for 44 years, the UK has stored its nuclear weapons in western Scotland. Faslane, 40 kms west of Glasgow, Scotland's biggest city, has been home to the nuclear deterrent since 1969. Warheads are stored 13 kms away at Coulport. In its report, 'Trident: Nowhere To Go', the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament has argued that "relocation is not a serious option" for the Ministry of Defence in the event of an independent Scotland ordering the removal of nuclear weapon facilities and vessels from Scotland. Professor Malcolm Chalmers, Director of Defence Policy at the Royal United Services Institute, has similarly argued that "relocation of these bases would be very difficult, if not impossible, to implement" and that it would be "perhaps politically impossible to find a suitable alternative location for the warhead storage facility currently based in Coulport."
So, how likely is this scenario? Polls have consistently shown independence trailing the status quo. However, the gap between those in favour of independence and those against has narrowed to just 10 points according to the most recent survey published in the Sunday Times on March 24. It showed support for Yes at 36%, No at 46%, and 'Don't Knows' at 18% − the narrowest gap in the campaign so far. The result means a swing of just 5% would see Scotland voting for independence.
The independence debate has largely centred on the economics of going it alone, with much discussion around such issues as North Sea oil, the budget deficit, currency and debt. Recently, however, the focus has shifted to other areas, such as the likely military policies of an independent Scotland. It is here that things become interesting. Opinion polls show maintaining Trident is unpopular throughout the UK , but nowhere is it less popular than in Scotland. Indeed, polls consistently show that more people oppose nuclear weapons than support independence. According to a poll published on March 13, 60% of Scottish voters are against the policy of Cameron's Conservatives and the Labour Party to replace Trident.
Trident, then, is certain to feature strongly in the referendum debate. As the Scottish National Party's Angus Robertson said in a recent debate: "The majority of MPs from Scotland and the majority of Members of the Scottish Parliament have voted against Trident renewal. The Scottish Government are opposed to Trident , the Scottish Trades Union Congress is opposed to Trident , the Church of Scotland is opposed, the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland is opposed, the Episcopal Church of Scotland is opposed, the Muslim Council of Scotland is opposed, and, most important, the public of Scotland are overwhelmingly opposed to the renewal of Trident ."
Last month, on the back of this popular opposition, the Scottish Parliament passed an historic resolution confirming its opposition to nuclear weapons. Furthermore, the Greens, Independents and the Scottish National Party all favour a constitutional ban on nuclear weapons. Thus, if Scotland votes Yes, it is pretty certain that Trident will go and Scotland will become nuclear free.
To ensure that this implication of the referendum is understood by the Scottish public, a number of groups came together to form a coalition to campaign on this issue. Calling itself the Scrap Trident coalition, this diverse collaboration of peace groups, greens, trade unionists, disabilities rights campaigners, anti-cuts campaigners, and other radical grassroots organisations quickly united behind an anti-austerity / anti-Trident message in Scotland.
Highlighting the huge cost of Trident while the government is cutting welfare, pensions and disability benefits, the Scrap Trident campaign soon gathered momentum. A weekend of protest and action was organised that saw a huge march and rally in Glasgow city centre on April 13, followed by a blockade of Faslane naval base the following Monday, as part of the Global Day of Action on Military Spending. This event, one of the largest demonstrations of non-violent direct action in Scotland for several years, saw hundreds take part in civil disobedience that closed the base for several hours and saw 45 people arrested. This provoked media interest and suddenly the issue of nuclear disarmament took centre stage in the Scottish independence debate.
So will this factor convince the people of Scotland to vote Yes? We will find out in September 2014, but as Krista van Velzen, Socialist Party member of the Dutch Parliament from 2002 to 2010, told the thousands gathered for the Scrap Trident Demonstration in Glasgow: "This will be the first time any of the people of the nations of Europe can actually vote whether they want their country to be a nuclear weapon state. Scotland might lead the way for all of us!"
It is an imposing and yet an inspiring task. We here at the Scrap Trident coalition will be spending the next 17 months ensuring that the people of Scotland know just what is at stake, for this small country in northern Europe, and for all of the countries of the world.
Contact: Steven Griffiths works with the Scrap Trident Coalition and the Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. scraptrident2013[@]gmail.com, http://scraptrident.org