Jonathon Shafi: Opposition to Trident will take on new meaning in the post-Coronavirus landscape

“As the virus clearly shows, such a ‘deterrent’ is totally powerless in the midst of the many threats we will face in the coming decades. We need a re-allocation of such resources to the benefit of society as a whole, and not the imperial ambitions of the ailing British state.”

In the latest installment of his series of essays on Scottish independence in the age of Coronavirus, Jonathon Shafi argues that the ongoing pandemic has made clear the distinction between national and human security.

IN last week’s introduction to this series, I outlined the need for a revamped case for independence in the post-Coronavirus world. That means adopting some big changes in tone and message, from which will see an expansion of support for independence.

It also means reconstructing the economic, social and democratic case for independence in the context of a world order in flux. But at the same time, we should also look to some of the long-held core principles of the independence movement, and see how they fit in today’s rapidly changing situation.

One of those is opposition to Trident, a proud tradition that lies at the very heart of the independence cause. This was true during the last referendum, where ‘bairns not bombs’ adorned the badges and stickers of Yes activists. On the independence demonstrations that followed 2014, including the historic All Under One Banner mobilisations, placards opposing the UK’s nuclear programme were a permanent feature.

Opposition to Trident has been with the independence movement since early in its development, and for decades has been central to the positioning of the SNP. Here, we should be under no illusions about the radical intent behind it: building a political movement that would simultaneously break up the British state and disarm it of its nuclear capability requires ballast, and vision.

The opposition to Trident runs deep in Scottish society. The STUC – key in coordinating the campaign for devolution – have long opposed the nuclear weapons based at Faslane. While some trade unions have defended Trident replacement on the basis that it provides jobs, the STUC as a whole has maintained vocal opposition. In addition, the STUC co-authored a vital report alongside Scottish CND detailing how we could move away from Trident, but retain jobs.

The 2015 report, ‘Trident and Jobs: the case for a Scottish Defence Diversification Agency’, led to the STUC calling on all “candidates and political parties to oppose Trident renewal and to commit to the establishment of a Scottish Defence Diversification Agency tasked with retaining skills, supporting new jobs and enhancing local and national economic development.”

Opposition to Trident can also be found among faith groups, Scottish civil society and indeed among the population at large. Polling evidence shows that opposition to Trident has mass appeal in Scotland; the 2016 Survation Scottish Attitudes poll showed that 58 per cent (excluding ‘don’t knows’) opposed Trident. In 2018, YouGov reported that 48 per cent of Scots supported the Scottish Government having the final say on the issue.

Arguably, some of the key developments in Scottish politics over the past 20 years have been informed by the issue. The demise of New Labour in Scotland and the rise of the SNP pre-2014 came about for a multitude of reasons, but among them was opposition to the Iraq war – a war that would scorch earth between hundreds of thousands of Scots and the Labour Party, and reinforce the anti-Trident position of the SNP further.

Today, this core tenant of the independence cause should in my view form a central plank of our new case. Because today – in a most stark manner – we see the difference between the ‘national security’ imperatives of the UK and the human security needs of the people. The well worn argument that money would be better spent on healthcare and services than on weapons of mass destruction is going to become even more poignant than before; it will resonate with all of those in Scotland who already oppose Trident, and it will generate new opponents too.

The independence movement might now centre ‘money for the NHS, not for bombs’ as a means not only to show how we will practically equip the people of Scotland with world-class health provision, but about our wider social priorities.

In the new world that emerges from the Coronavirus, a new challenge must be put to Trident. How can it be justified that billions of pounds should be spent on nuclear bombs, when we don’t have enough ventilators to keep people alive? How, in a world where threats to human security via disease, climate breakdown and poverty, can it possibly be justified that such resources should be expended on a nuclear base?

As Tom Unterrainer, Director of the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation says: “This pandemic and the inability of the British government to either prepare for or effectively respond to such an immediate threat to life demonstrates the twisted priorities at the heart of nuclear weapons spending. Rather than work to guarantee real security this government prioritises the acquisition and deployment of weapons of mass murder.”

Imagine the money spent on Trident had gone into reinforcing our public health system. The next generation of Trident will cost over £200 billion. And yet – as the virus clearly shows – such a ‘deterrent’ is totally powerless in the midst of the many threats we will face in the coming decades. We need a re-allocation of such resources to the benefit of society as a whole, and not the imperial ambitions of the ailing British state.

In turn, this should bring about another important argument – one which can be hugely popular across Scotland. We are entering a global economic crisis that may be worse than the Great Depression. Future essays will deal with the need for a new economic case for independence, but the key question for now is a simple one: who is going to pay?

Are we seriously going to continue to spend billions on nuclear weapons while millions of people endure the effects of the economic meltdown? Or are we going to take the opportunity to recast what is really important in our society? Are we going to make a new social order that prioritises people’s health and wellbeing? I believe the latter is not only morally correct, but will carry the majority of the society with it.

While opposition to Trident can be found across constitutional divisions, it is arguably the independence movement that is most able to carry such an argument. It is this movement who can argue with credibility, having held the position for so long. But more importantly it is this – the biggest social movement in modern Scottish history – that can bring the discussion into households, workplaces and communities. And, with Trident renewal locked into Labour, Tory and Lib Dem alike in Westminster, it is in Scotland where a breakthrough can be made.

Trident is an issue that has been raised before, can be raised during, and should be mobilised around after the Coronavirus. It exposes the irrationality of Westminster’s priorities. It exposes the difference between ‘national security’ and human security. It exposes the misrule Scots have laboured under at the hands of governments they didn’t vote for. It binds together the veterans of the movement with the new social elements that will join in the coming years.

The case against Trident also reveals the broader nature of the independence cause, one based on peace and economic justice. It opens up the question of national sovereignty from a progressive vantage. It is a democratic question – one which we can embrace with moral fortitude. And it suggests that the people of Scotland might have different international ambitions than the disastrous British foreign policy establishment.

Dust down the ‘bairns not bombs’ and the ‘fund NHS not Trident’ badges and placards. They are going to take on new meaning in the post-Coronavirus landscape. And it provides an enduring moral foundation to the independence cause, that shows consistency of principle, and a forward looking vision for the future that puts peoples welfare before weapons and warfare.

Picture courtesy of Richard Hopkins