Nicola Biggerstaff – 4th August 2022
Common Weal had the pleasure of standing alongside fellow independence supporters at the All Under One Banner rally at Faslane on Saturday. With a turnout of around 200, it was fantastic to see so many willing to make the, let’s be honest, nightmare of a journey there to protest one of the country’s most blatant threats to itself: the nuclear weapons being housed in our waters. We believe that, in an independent Scotland, we will have the ability to sufficiently defend ourselves without the assured destruction of society as we know it being constantly threatened from a remote corner of the country just outside Helensburgh. We must, as independence supporters, begin to acknowledge an important aspect of the debate: the feasibility of a nuclear-free state, and how we can make up for this diplomatically.
This week I also spoke to Isobel Lindsay, Co-Vice Chair of the Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (SCND), about the current state of affairs, and what we as a nation can do to fix it. In the week in which the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the world is just ‘one misunderstanding… away from nuclear annihilation’, Lindsay says these comments are not only ‘accurate’, but adds that this has always been the case since the inception of the nuclear weapon. We only need to look to the Cuban Missile Crisis to realise how close humanity once came to its end, and Lindsay adds an example from only March of this year, in which a stray Indian rocket landed in a rural area of Pakistan. Thankfully no one was hurt in the incident, but it took the level-headed diplomacy and clear communication of the two nuclear states to avoid escalation, amid the already heightened tensions around the state of Kashmir. If there were fatalities, she adds, the potential for two nuclear powers, already in disagreement with one another over issues of national importance, to face off could risk dire consequences for themselves and their allies.
On alliances, she also mentions the pressures associated within organisations such as NATO to fold to pressure from the more powerful nations, the US in this case. Their powerful influence is blocking the path to full denuclearisation, while also condemning other nations for exerting the same power over their respective blocs. The irony is palpable, and the terrifying repetition of history now races towards us at terrifying speed. She adds that their ability to pressure states such as Sweden and Finland to not sign the UN Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, by threatening rejection of their applications to join NATO means that, with the United States at the helm, the threat of nuclear weapons will remain firmly in the public debate for the foreseeable. We cannot allow ourselves to be sucked in to the fear this causes, the endless cycle of escalating tension, panic, and diplomatic resolution. Because one day, it won’t be resolved diplomatically. No one knows which day that will come, but if we carry on like this, it will eventually.
One of the most common arguments against nuclear disarmament we’re faced with is ‘oh, so you want Putin to come along and stamp all over us the minute we get rid of Trident?’ and honestly, if I had a pound for every time I was asked that, I wouldn’t need to sit and write this. A common whataboutism, it intends to insinuate that denuclearisation would make us sitting ducks, primed for targeting from the first foreign adversary that shows up. When I posed this question to Lindsay, I could tell that she too had encountered this question many times over. Her response was simple: ‘260 nuclear bombs in Scotland doesn’t make us safer, it makes us a target’. Right now, we are at greater risk of the consequences of nuclear conflict in Scotland than we would be with zero weapons within our borders. These weapons travel up and down our country for exercises and maintenance, on our roads, through our towns and villages, with little regard for the people they put at risk when they do so.
She goes on to specifically call the claims that Putin would invade the minute we became denuclearised as ‘absurd’, pointing out that their current botched invasion of Ukraine, with whom they share a land border and some cultural associations which they feel entitled to control, only further proves that an invasion of another country with no feasible purpose would only prove to be even more disastrous. Think about it, what do we have that they don’t already? Because it’s not oil, and it’s not weapons. Do you think they would risk the journey of thousands of miles through the North Sea, through the naval defences of the UK, the EU and the Nordic countries, using a military now crippled by the ongoing conflict, to prove a point of some of our own unionists? No, I don’t think so either.
While I didn’t grow up with anything near the sort of Cold War nuclear anxiety my parents and grandparents experienced in the 60s and 80s, it was still unsettling as a child to watch nations I had never previously heard of taunt the world with their ability to strike wherever they wanted, whenever they pleased. I was always reassured while watching the rise of nations like North Korea as nuclear powers that any offence would be met with them being ‘wiped off the map’ by the US or the West in general. This, however, can no longer be the case according to Lindsay, as she reminds us that in the years since, technological innovation has accelerated at such a rate that this defence is no longer guaranteed. There is now in existence the hypersonic missile, a weapon which can travel at least five time the speed of sound, within both the Chinese and Russian arsenals. As technology advances further, we can only expect more nations in the future to develop similar or even greater delivery systems. Were these to be equipped with nuclear capabilities, the risk they would pose to civilians would be devastating and instantaneous, the weapons housed at Faslane since the 60s being no match should the need to retaliate arise. To win a race, it helps if you have a faster car than your opponent, and in the age of instant communication, what we have simply will not keep up. While we have always been told that there are no winners in a nuclear arms race, it is now increasingly apparent who the outright losers will be.
Finally, some good news. We also discussed the protections which Scotland would be entitled to as a signatory of the NPT. The Treaty, which the UK ratified in 1968, ensure under Articles I and II that any signatory that houses nuclear weapons:
Undertakes not to transfer… nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices or control over such weapons or explosive devices… to assist, encourage, or induce any non-nuclear-weapon State to manufacture or otherwise acquire [them], or control over [them]
And any non-nuclear signatory:
Undertakes not to receive… nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices or… control over such weapons or explosive devices directly, or indirectly; not to manufacture or otherwise acquire [them]; and not to seek or receive any assistance in the manufacture of [them]
In short, provided the Scottish Government remain firmly against the use and storage of nuclear weapons (although this is now debated among the SNP at the prospect of a second referendum), the UK would be legally obligated under Article I to move the weapons stored at Faslane in the event of independence, and an independent, non-proliferating Scotland has legal grounds to have the weapons at Faslane moved to ensure full denuclearisation under Article II.
We still have a lot of work to do, and we need to act now. We cannot have these dangerous weapons, which will only decrease in their ability to deter as the months and years go by, to sit and fester in our waters. We need level-headed, highly-skilled diplomats to argue the case that a nuclear-free world is possible, that we can learn from the lessons of history, and that a brighter future without these outdated methods of conducting ourselves on the international stage is only possible with our independence.
With special thanks to Isobel Lindsay of SCND for her contribution to this article. To find out more about their work, including upcoming events, please visit https://www.banthebomb.org/ .