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Never heed the houdies - Scotland can ban the bomb

Contrary to recent media coverage of a report from an MOD think tank, Scottish CND argues that a Yes vote is likely to lead to there being no nuclear weapons in Britain and that Trident can be removed within 2 years.


Never heed the houdies – Scotland can ban the bomb

One of the highlights of the Commonweath Games opening ceremony was Pumeza Matshikiza’s rendition of “Freedom Come All Ye”. This Scottish international anthem was written by Hamish Henderson in 1960. Peace protesters adopted the tune as they marched against Polaris nuclear weapons being based in Scotland. Anti-nuclear campaigners have continued to use “Freedom Come All Ye” as their anthem for more than five decades.

There are many inspiring lines in Henderson’s carefully crafted work. 

“Nae mair will our bonnie callants, Merch tae war whan our braggarts crousely craw”.  

The final verse begins: 

“Sae come aa ye at hame wi freedom, Never heed whit the houdies croak for Doom”. 

As Scotland considers its future, the harsh cries of the hooded crows (houdies) have filled our woods and lanes.  Many voices have foretold disaster and told us what we can’t do.  One recent example of this was an attempt to convince us that Scotland can’t ban the bomb.  Two researchers at the Royal United Services Institute (61 Whitehall, London - neighbours to the Ministry of Defence) wrote in “Relocation, Relocation, Relocation” that if we vote Yes, Trident would probably stay on the Clyde until 2028, when it would be moved to England.  The report, by Malcolm Chalmers and Hugh Chalmers, was widely publicised in the Scottish media.  It appears to contradict earlier research by Scottish CND.

In 2012 Scottish CND published a detailed timeline for disarming Trident. This showed that the system could be de-activated within days.  All the nuclear warheads could be removed from Scotland within two years and dismantled within four.  Several senior nuclear experts in America said that this timescale was realistic. They included Professor Dick Garwin, co-designer of the Hydrogen bomb and advisor to successive US governments. The Scottish Government, in Scotland’s Future, proposes removing Trident by 2020, within 4 years of independence.

In “Trident: Nowhere to Go” Scottish CND has argued that a Yes vote would probably result in London cancelling Trident, because the relocation options were not viable. Scottish CND has not been alone in expressing this view. Several senior establishment figures have questioned the feasibility of building new bases for the nuclear fleet. Among them are Rear Admiral Martin Alabaster, former commander of Faslane, and Nick Harvey, former Armed Forces minister.  Andrew Neil, in the BBC documentary “Scotland votes: What’s at stake for the UK?”, argued that a Yes vote would end the British nuclear weapons’ programme.  Leading academic Lord Hennessy, interviewed by Neil, said, “Scotland could be the trigger for nuclear disarmament for the UK”.

 One of the authors of the RUSI report, “Relocation, Relocation, Relocation”, has himself previously highlighted the difficulties of trying to move Trident. In 2001, Malcolm Chalmers wrote “Unchartered Waters: The UK, nuclear weapons and the Scottish question”, along with William Walker. This says, “it might be possible to relocate Trident, but only at great expense, after lengthy preparations, and at considerable political cost” (italics in original). In April 2012, RUSI published “The end of an ‘Auld Sang’ Defence in an independent Scotland”. In this paper Malcolm Chalmers says, “The UK might possibly be able to find, given a few years and sufficient financial compensation, alternative berths for the Trident submarines themselves. But it would be much more difficult, and perhaps politically impossible, to find a suitable alternative location for the warhead storage facility, currently based in Coulport”.

So the claims made in “Relocation, Relocation, Relocation” should be subjected to close scrutiny.  Experts who have looked at the issue are unanimous in saying that the biggest problem is finding a site to replace the Coulport nuclear weapons’ store.  Central to the new RUSI report is its proposal that Coulport could be replicated at Falmouth in Cornwall. But this is an assertion. The paper contains is very little detailed analysis of the Falmouth option. Unlike Scottish CND’s earlier work, the RUSI report makes no attempt to identify sites for each of the nuclear facilities required within the depot, or to calculate the distance between these facilities and residential areas.  An image in their report suggests that the villages of Mylor and Flushing would be outside the perimeter of the depot, whereas Scottish CND’s more detailed assessment concluded that both villages would need to be evacuated. RUSI refer to the impact on the tourism industry, but make no mention of the reason why Falmouth was rejected as a site for Polaris in 1963, the complexity of land purchase.  Nor do they address the central problem of safety.  The site is too close to the town of Falmouth, which has a population of 20,000.

Admiral Lord West is a prominent support of Trident and of the Union. However, he has dismissed the possibility of replicating Coulport at Falmouth.  Speaking on Radio Scotland on 9 May 2014, Lord West said that Falmouth had been the Navy’s preferred option in the 1960s. He added “There is no doubt now it would be very difficult to build it at Falmouth now – a Coulport-like at Falmouth – and I imagine that the only place you really could realistically do it would be Milford Haven”.  Milford Haven, in Wales, is correctly dismissed in the RUSI report because of the large number of oil and gas facilities in the estuary. If neither Falmouth nor Milford Haven are suitable sites for a nuclear weapons’ depot, then a Yes vote is likely to result in disarmament, not relocation.

“Relocation, Relocation, Relocation” proposes that Devonport could become the base for Trident submarines, replacing Faslane. This is considered in more detail than Falmouth. The analysis is heavily dependent on a Scottish CND’s study into the risks of basing Trident missiles in Devonport, but the RUSI report omits some of the key points in this earlier work. For example, the Scottish CND study quotes one MOD report which shows that people within 1 kilometre of a missile explosion could receive a fatal radiation dose of over 10 Sieverts.  Several thousand civilians live within 1 kilometre of Devonport.  Scottish CND’s report includes two projections of the effects of a missile explosion, in different weather conditions. In each case, a large proportion of Plymouth would be contaminated to an unacceptable level and there would be a large numbers of fatalities.

The MOD assesses the risk of nuclear accidents against tolerability criteria. The RUSI report says that these criteria are classified. But this is not correct. The MOD put the criteria in the public domain two years ago, following a Freedom of Information request.  Much is known about the MOD’s safety methodology and some of the figures from their Faslane assessments have been made public.

“Relocation, Relocation, Relocation” implies that the MOD would simply change their safety standards so that the new facilities could be built. The Royal Navy would waive the rules. The report says that the MOD’s definition of tolerable risk is “flexible to what is considered by the ministry to be reasonably practicable in any particular circumstance”. I suspect this will come as news to those who work for the Defence Nuclear Safety Regulator (DNSR).  While it is true that DNSR could change the thresholds, this would be no minor matter.  The civil regulator, the Office of Nuclear Regulation (ONR), might not look kindly on such a change.  The continued operation of Devonport dockyard is already problematic, as ONR would never permit a major civil nuclear facility to function in the centre of a large city.

The RUSI report recognises that there could be significant political problems with relocation, particularly with building a nuclear weapons’ depot at Falmouth. But it fails to mention that these would be exaggerated by the need to change the safety standards. The government would be saying to the residents of Plymouth and Falmouth – “You are going to have Trident because the Scots won’t accept it, and you are going to have it on the basis of lower safety standards than those that apply in Scotland today.”  

After the publication of “Relocation, Relocation, Relocation”, Malcolm Chalmers spoke to Jeremy Vine on Radio 2. He was less forthright about the potential for moving Trident than the initial reports in the Scottish media would suggest. He said:

“Basing Trident in the South West of England is inferior in all sorts of ways to basing it in Scotland and would require some additional costs and a lot of looking at safety cases. A lot of local people would not like suddenly the appearance of lots of Scots workers, never mind nuclear weapons on their territory, so it would provoke a national debate. ...  It is a very complex and difficult job, and we can’t be sure sitting outside Government that it would be feasible ... The most difficult issues are around meeting the high safety measures rather than costs”.  

 “Relocation, Relocation, Relocation” suggests that the issue of relocating Trident could initiate a wider debate on whether there should be any nuclear weapons in Britain. But it doesn’t give adequate attention to the vulnerability of the case for Trident at home or the growing international pressure for real disarmament.  

In the past the Treasury’s approach to nuclear weapons’ projects has been described as being like a shark circling shipwreck survivors in a small raft. The shark can’t sink the raft, but if anyone falls overboard it will quickly move in for the kill. And the Treasury would not be alone in welcoming the sad demise of the nuclear weapons’ programme.  How many generals would join them in a quiet drink to celebrate the end of Trident? 

The Trident replacement programme was initiated on the shallow basis that it would provide insurance in an uncertain world. Today there is growing awareness, as Ward Wilson has argued, that nuclear missiles are clumsy, obsolete and useless weapons. The idea that they provide an effective deterrent is a myth.

The latest international moves towards disarmament have built on an initiative from the Red Cross which focused on the effects of nuclear weapons. Humanitarian agencies would be overwhelmed and unable to make an adequate response. 129 nations gathered in Norway in 2013 to discuss the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons and 146 attended the follow-up conference in Mexico in 2014. In his closing remarks, the chair of the Mexico conference said that it was a “point of no return”.  There is growing international interest in introducing a ban on nuclear weapons. As with earlier prohibitions on specific weapons, this could be initially led by nations that don’t have them.

The potential significance of Scottish independence has been highlighted by several leading figures in the international disarmament campaign.

Speaking on the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, the city's former mayor, Tadatoshi Akiba, said “your successful effort in Scotland would tell them and the world that citizens round the world have won this historic and monumental and humanitarian battle over nuclear weapons”.  

Ward Wilson, Director of the Rethinking Nuclear Weapons Project, who spoke at a meeting in the Parliament on 5 August, said that Scotland’s rejection of nuclear weapons “will have an enormous and beneficial impact on the safety of civilisation.” He added that “at key moments, small nations can have a profound and powerful impact on world conversations.  They can clear away the dust and cobwebs of the past.  This is one of the moments.”

Bruce Kent, Vice-President of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, backed a Yes vote as it “would lead to the removal of immoral and illegal Trident from Faslane and Scotland”.

Ray Acheson, Director of Reaching Critical Willl, coordinates the work of NGOs at international disarmament conferences. In a recent article, she says, "Scottish independence could be the most significant development for international nuclear disarmament efforts in many years"

Malcolm Chalmers has, over several years, argued that the government of an independent Scotland, even if it was led by the SNP, would do a deal and allow Trident to stay for as long as London required.  But he underestimates the extent to which opposition to nuclear weapons is a core issue for the SNP. Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon have repeatedly said that rejection of nuclear weapons is a point of principle and that Trident is not a bargaining chip. The SNP’s opposition to Trident has been expressed in the Scottish Government’s plans for a constitutional ban on these Weapons of Mass Destruction.

The interim constitution in the draft Independence Bill says “the Scottish Government must pursue negotiations with a view to securing (a) nuclear disarmament in accordance with international law, and (b) the safe and expeditious removal from the territory of Scotland of nuclear weapons based there.”  The bill also says proposes that the permanent constitution should include “a ban on nuclear weapons being based in Scotland”.  This would be entirely consistent with the revived international interest in nuclear disarmament.

“Relocation, Relocation, Relocation” ignores the plan for a constitutional ban. Their thesis that Trident would stay on the Clyde for 12 years, takes no account of this proposed constitution. If the proposal to move Trident to Falmouth and Devonport is not viable, then London will want to keep nuclear missiles on the Clyde, not for 12 years, but for 50 years, throughout the life of the planned Trident replacement. It is even less likely that Scotland would sign up to a deal that allows these Weapons of Mass Destruction to remain for half a century.

The period after a Yes vote would not be a time for disarmament campaigners to relax. There would still be lots of work to do, to ensure that whatever government was elected they would act resolutely to remove Trident and to urge the Constitutional Convention to include the proposed ban on nuclear weapons in the constitution.  A Yes vote would only be one step on the road to disarmament, but it would be a very important one.

John Ainslie, Coordinator, Scottish CND, 20 August 2014

Scottish CND's most recent report "No Place for Trident: Scottish Independence and Nuclear Disarmament" (April 2012) is available online. Printed copies can be ordered, free from Scottish CND - This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


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