Whilst not the ideal option for many, I’m a pragmatist, and I believe that it would be a source of income for the fledgling independent Scotland and help support the new state’s entry to NATO.
Faslane is the second-largest single-site employer in Scotland, after the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in Glasgow. Officially known as HMNB Clyde, the facility is one of the Royal Navy’s three main operating bases. However, it is best known as the home of the UK’s four Vanguard-class nuclear-armed submarines, which carry Trident II D-5 ballistic missiles.
An option touted by many in defence and political circles is the idea of leasing Faslane back to the United Kingdom for at least a short period, but why? Well, the presence of British nuclear weapons in an independent Scotland run by a government that was against Trident would be a valuable ‘bargaining chip’, something the UK government would likely pay over the odds in money and favour to retain. But is this realistic?
The SNP’s former Westminster leader, Angus Robertson, doesn’t think so. Mr Robertson said at a webinar on the defence of an independent Scotland, organised by the Irish Defence Forces Officers’ Club, “I leave you in absolutely no doubt that there is zero chance of that happening”.
However, SNP Defence Spokesman Stewart McDonald appears to have indicated a more pragmatic approach that would see the weapons gradually removed after some time in a way that would benefit Scotland and the UK. Speaking to BBC Scotland, McDonald was asked if an independent Scotland would ban nuclear submarines and replied, “We don’t want to permanently host nuclear weapons from other states, but we certainly will take our commitments as new members of the alliance seriously”.
Clearly, there are differing views on this. The decision is one for the Scottish Government and the people of Scotland to make.
An independent Scotland would benefit from cash and favours
There are two primary reasons I believe that leasing Faslane back to the UK makes sense for an independent Scotland. They can easily be summed up as money and goodwill.
First, it is very likely the UK Government would offer significant sums of money to the government of an independent Scotland to retain the facilities on the Clyde. This would, effectively, be an arrangement similar to the Sovereign Base Areas in Cyprus that host British air bases on what is functionally sovereign British territory.
A sovereign base area style arrangement isn’t a new idea. Back in 2019, defence analyst Trevor Royle, someone opposed to nuclear weapons on grounds of cost and morality, argued quite convincingly in a strategy paper that an independent Scotland “will not be so awash with cash that it can ignore an asset such as Faslane, which could attract a rental of £1.1bn a year”. Allowing the UK to lease Faslane from an independent Scotland would give Scotland the money, and therefore the time, to settle into statehood and work out its own defence.
It’s also worth remembering that should Scotland decide to leave the United Kingdom, goodwill in negotiations isn’t something anyone can have too much of. Negotiating with the United Kingdom in good faith and in a way that benefits both states will place fewer roadblocks elsewhere, which brings me on to my second point.
NATO and Scotland need each other, but they need to work with each other
If Scotland leaves the UK and seeks to become a NATO member, it faces serious hurdles, primarily the opposition to leasing Faslane and demanding it be moved as soon as possible. I believe that the position of the Scottish Government against nuclear weapons would make joining NATO very difficult. Why? Well, NATO is at heart a nuclear alliance. That is ultimately the point.
Since NATO was founded more than 70 years ago, in the words of NATO itself, nuclear weapons have been “the foundation of the Alliance’s collective security”.
Three NATO members – the United States, France, and the United Kingdom – have nuclear weapons and form the ‘strategic forces’ of the Alliance, around which the entire security posture of NATO is centred. Once more, in the words of NATO itself, the strategic forces of the Alliance “are the supreme guarantee of the Alliance’s security”.
More to the point, a key factor in the strategic utility of the UK’s nuclear weapons is the fact that the submarines that carry them are based in Scotland at Faslane. Some like to claim that’s because ‘Scots are expendable to Westminster’, ignoring that nuclear weapons are also stored just outside of London. However, the military reason is that the position of the base provides for rapid access to the submarine patrolling areas in the North Atlantic, something that can’t be easily replicated by a base further south.
Scotland should decide, but there’s no reason not to work together
The reality is, NATO is a nuclear alliance. Its members are not going to be sympathetic to a nation joining the alliance whilst actively undermining its nuclear capability by forcing disruption onto a significant part of it. Instead, a mutually agreed and gradual approach seems to be the way to go.
Scotland’s admittance into NATO largely depends on the choices made by Scotland. What I mean by that is, should an independent Scotland pursue a policy that actively undermines the nuclear security of the alliance, then I genuinely doubt that it would be welcomed into NATO with open arms. But it so easily could be if it worked constructively with the UK.
If Scotland were to abandon demands for Trident to be relocated immediately and instead, at least for a while, leased Faslane back to the UK Government, then I expect it would likely be welcomed into the alliance. Additionally, the revenue generated would also give it forces to contribute to the security of NATO, bringing more to the table than it otherwise would.
Could Faslane be leased out to the UK Government? I think it should be, but I’m but just one voice amongst millions.
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