David Carr: We must plan practically for Scotland’s nuclear-free future

29/07/2016
angela

CommonSpace columnist David Carr discusses how Scotland can use disarmament to its economic benefit

FIFTY-EIGHT out of Scotland’s 59 MPs recently voted against the renewal of the Trident. This delivered an overwhelming democratic mandate for the eventual removal of nuclear weapons from Scotland. With Scottish independence increasingly likely – the UK Government now has a problem. 

But Vanguard class submarines won’t simply set sail down Gare Loch on Independence Day, waved off by cheering weans, bound for some unspecified southern naval base. We need to plan our transition to a nuclear-free Scotland.

It is in Scotland’s interest to achieve as amicable a settlement as possible with our neighbours. Over Trident there is an immediate point of conflict that we will need to negotiate. 

An essential task following any separation is to discuss how to divide joint assets. Scotland would be entitled to a fair share. We can negotiate whether to take them as assets or as a reduction of our share of debt.

The UK Parliament has just decided, for its own reasons, that Trident’s £31bn cost is good value for money – even if it has no other choice than to raise the money by imposing further austerity. But MPs aren’t daft. 472 elected MPs voted for Trident renewal, based on how they weigh up the UK’s foreign policy imperatives against cost and risks.

They may choose to revisit their decision as things change.

Let’s temporarily park the nuclear question. An essential task following any separation is to discuss how to divide joint assets. Scotland would be entitled to a fair share. We can negotiate whether to take them as assets or as a reduction of our share of debt.

So let’s talk Naval assets. We can’t find a use for Vanguard class submarines and their armaments. Let’s take the money. 

Then we come to the two expensive aircraft carriers. They provide 'power projection' – backing up UK foreign policy with muscle. They come with Type 45 destroyers which primarily provide anti-air warfare support to the carrier battle group. If their role doesn’t fit with Scottish foreign policy – then we should take the money for those too.

As we go through the assets, a couple of things start to happen. Firstly, Scotland potentially amasses money and maybe some ships that let us put together the sort of Scottish Navy we want.

As we go through the assets, a couple of things start to happen. Firstly, Scotland potentially amasses money and maybe some ships that let us put together the sort of Scottish Navy we want.  This will require some serious thinking about defence strategy. Would we want something like the highly respected Scandinavian navies with their very different mix of ships? Would we commit to Nato obligations?

(As an aside – we should also think about scrap value. It might seem counterintuitive to ask for our share of the RN’s 4 Trafalgar Class and 3 Astute Class non-ballistic nuclear submarines – but a recent Assembly for Democracy on Recycling Trident discussed a provocative suggestion that their Rolls Royce PWR2 reactors could be upcycled to provide mains energy reasonably safely and cheaply).

Secondly – the per capita cost of the Royal Navy changes as the UK now has to take full costs of their most expensive assets. They might want to reconsider how to spend their military budget. Some even in the Royal Navy’s surface fleet already question the nuclear case – I have heard serving officers describe Faslane as "the biggest waste of money going". There have been hints from the US that they would prefer the UK to spend their defence budget more practically.

We must also address wider costs. This means facing up to the employment impact. 

Patricia Gibson MP used an interesting analogy in the Commons debate: "Saying Trident is important because of jobs is like saying that we should not find a cure for cancer for fear that cancer surgeons would be unemployed." But I’m sure skilled doctors could find other diseases to cure. 

Secondly – the per capita cost of the Royal Navy changes as the UK now has to take full costs of their most expensive assets. They might want to reconsider how to spend their military budget.

Jobs are a real issue. We must plan to give Faslane personnel, many of whom are highly skilled, something constructive to do.

Here, we must do something more than re-assuring hand-waving – sometimes unhelpfully backed up with selective statistics. The government admission that only 520 civilian jobs are associated with Trident is widely quoted. It is misleading and should be dropped. Besides ignoring supply chain and 'trickle-down' spending  – including that by RN personnel – it only tells part of the story.

The approximate number of employees at Faslane is around 6,000-8,000. A naval base which no longer meets its principal purpose is of no further use to the UK. We must  take responsibility for all of those jobs. How can we do that?

At indyref, the Scottish Government proposed Faslane as the headquarters for a future Scottish Armed Forces. That’s one idea. 

But really we should re-frame the question: What is the most beneficial thing we could we do with a loch-side port near a major city? The business case for Trident may look precarious when we consider alternatives. How about a marina? Or building and supporting offshore renewable energy? A goods or ferry terminal to revitalise the Highlands and Islands?

I have written previously that Scotland has a bumper economic future ahead based on maritime industries. Faslane could be part of this – as part of a bigger picture –  if we have a plan for building up maritime and renewables infrastructure.

We must also address wider costs. This means facing up to the employment impact. Jobs are a real issue. We must plan to give Faslane personnel, many of whom are highly skilled, something constructive to do.

More hard work is needed to put numbers of jobs against this – and to make them happen. This can only happen as part of a wider industrial policy which considers our needs and makes the best use of our assets – physical and human.

As part of the case we might look at further demilitarisation of the economy. There are around 3,500 people employed in military shipbuilding in Scotland. Their fortunes have fluctuated – there have been successive redundancies. They survive mainly on UK government custom and so their position in an independent Scotland is a legitimate concern. Few of the many shipyard workers I know have been reassured by Scottish Government assurances.

But they are a highly skilled workforce. I have no doubt they could adapt their skills for civilian purposes. I personally know shipyard workers who have turned their engineering expertise to commercial shipping, environmentally safe ship recycling and even renewable energy. They also have a culture of getting things built. The physical shipyards would be useful too.

With the right policies and incentivisation, we should be able to build an economic case for Scottish industry which is not reliant on servicing UK military policy.

I have written previously that Scotland has a bumper economic future ahead based on maritime industries. Faslane could be part of this – as part of a bigger picture –  if we have a plan for building up maritime and renewables infrastructure.

But it’s not just about removing nuclear weapons from Scotland. We will be no less safe from nuclear annihilation simply because we are no longer at Ground Zero. When my mum and I walked around RAF Molesworth in the 1980s, we had disarmament in mind.

Now we’ve given the owners some food for thought. We’ve shifted the cost-benefit trade-off – especially when the costs of re-housing the weapons are considered. But Scotland would also be challenging the benefit side by the example of neighbours who not only seem happier without them – but who get quantifiable benefit from their absence. 

This changes the equation. Given the enormous costs and unimaginable risks, the onus is on the UK Government to demonstrate why it is better to choose bombs over bairns. 

Picture courtesy of Defence Images

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