The Scottish National Party has insisted that an independent Scotland would be free of nuclear weapons, says Eric Chester. This position reflects the fact that Scottish popular opinion is overwhelmingly opposed to the stationing of the Trident submarine system at Faslane. These subs, a leftover from the Cold War days, are nuclear powered and carry ballistic missiles armed with nuclear weapons. The SNP campaign to rid Scotland of nuclear weapons has provided one of the few salient arguments for independence.
At the same time, the SNP is desperate to depict an independent Scotland as one that can be counted on to be a reliable cog in the global capitalist order. This drive for respectability has led Alex Salmond to push through the recent SNP national conference a resolution insisting that an independent Scotland would remain within NATO. Contrary to the SNP’s protestations, these two positions are blatantly contradictory.
NATO is committed to nuclear weapons by charter, and by strategic objective. All member states agree to a policy statement holding that nuclear weapons are integral to its military plans. Furthermore, the British and French nuclear arsenals are specifically included as complements to the U.S. nuclear capability. Every NATO country, except for France, is a member of NATO’s nuclear planning group. (France insists that its nuclear weapons constitute a separate military force.) The entire logic of the situation would suggest that the SNP policy is a sham, that membership in NATO implies a willingness to host nuclear weapons.
The SNP has attempted to resolve this quandary by insisting that NATO needs Scotland due to its strategic location, and thus will be willing to bend its rules to allow an independent Scotland to remain a member state while refusing to host nuclear weapons. This argument ignores the vast power imbalance confronting Scotland. The United States remains the sole global superpower, with strategic and economic power that dwarfs Scotland, and this does not take into the power of other NATO countries, especially Germany. (Germany is one of several NATO countries that hos U.S. tactical nuclear weapons.)
Furthermore, the United States will not view the issue as one that only involves Scotland. If an independent Scotland is permitted to join NATO on the basis of a public refusal to permit nuclear weapons on its territory, other member countries in which popular opinion is hostile to nuclear weapons will cite the Scottish case, and demand to be exempted as well. The Scottish debate can only be understood within the broader context of widespread popular support throughout Western Europe for an initiative to make the entire region free of nuclear weapons.
NATO might permit an independent Scotland to claim that it is free of nuclear weapons, but NATO would require Scotland to continue to permit ships and planes armed with these weapons to use its military facilities. Salmond and the SNP argue that NATO has already agreed to allow some member countries to refuse to host nuclear weapons. The two countries usually cited to support this position are Denmark and Norway. In 1988, the Danish Parliament passed a resolution requiring NATO ships and submarines to inform Denmark if they were carrying nuclear weapons before docking. Denmark had already publicly stated that it did not want nuclear weapons deployed in its territory. The United States, with the support of NATO, voiced its vehement opposition to this requirement, arguing that it threatened the future of the alliance. In the end, Denmark agreed that NATO vessels could dock by merely stating their intention to use a Danish port. The captains of these vessels would not be required to inform the Danish authorities as to whether it was carrying nuclear weapons. This ‘no question asked’ policy met with NATO’s approval, and continues in force to this day. Norway follows a similar procedure.
Obviously, the ‘no questions asked’ policy is a fraudulent facade. Joining NATO implies a willingness to further U.S. military power, both in terms of conventional forces and nuclear weaponry. There is only one country that once was in a military alliance with the United States and that has opted out, not just in terms of meaningless phrases but in its actions.
New Zealand was a member of the ANZUS alliance that included the United States and Australia as well. In 1984, it declared itself free of nuclear weapons, and the government announced that U.S. ships would have to declare whether it carried nuclear weapons before being allowed to dock. When a U.S. warship attempted to dock without specifying its weaponry, it was refused landing privileges. The United States responded by breaking military relations with New Zealand. For twenty-five years, New Zealand warships were not allowed to use U.S. naval bases located around the Pacific Ocean. Nevertheless, New Zealand, unlike Denmark, refused to buckle, and it continues to be a country free of all nuclear weapons.
The New Zealand case is crystal clear. The SNP argument is false. If an independent Scotland wishes to remain within NATO, it will have to allow NATO ships and submarines carrying nuclear weapons to dock in its ports. As long as it remains a NATO member state, Scotland will not be free of nuclear weapons.
Since Salmond cites Denmark and Norway as support for his argument, we can only assume that he intends to follow the same model that these countries have established. NATO submarines will continue to dock at Faslane, but they will do so without declaring that they are carrying nuclear weapons. In other words, it will be a deceptive and compliant Scotland engaging in subterfuge, rather than adhering to its stated principles.
The SNP perspective on NATO and nuclear weapons is a sham, but then the entire SNP vision of Scottish independence is empty rhetoric. “Independence” with a continued allegiance to the crown, membership in NATO and the European Union, and retention of the pound sterling or use of the Euro is not a genuine independence. Scottish independence could be a meaningful step forward to a more just society, but only if those committed to independence reject the SNP perspective in its entirety, and move forward along a very different path.