Yesterday’s Guardian, 10th July 2p13, reported that Government officials in the Ministry of Defence are exploring the possibility of making Faslane – and presumably Coulport – UK sovereign territory.
This is supposed to be a potential protection against the need to move nuclear weapons, including submarine-launched Trident missiles, out of Scotland were this country to vote for separation from the United Kingdom in September 2014.
The only place in the world where there are designated British Sovereign Base areas is Cyprus, where there ate two: Akrotiri and Dhekelia, with Cyprus a former British Crown colony.
Everything about this move is damagingly cack-handed in the context of Scotland’s upcoming Independence Referendum.
The fact that the only previous British Sovereign Base areas were in a former ‘British colony’ could not be more inflammatory. Even the possibility of imperialist stunts like this is enough to drive many into voting for a separation they would not otherwise support.
Then there is the issue of nuclear arms themselves.
This move, which would represent a way of compelling a potentially sort-of-sovereign nation to host a form of arms it has nationally declared it does not want on its soil, is a potent recruiting serjeant for independence.
The anti-nuclear movement in Scotland is a strong one.
So following yesterday’s floating of the story, today is seeing – rightly – a speedy retreat from Westminster.
It is no surprise than the Prime Minister has dismissed the possibility in an announcement from Downing Street, saying it is ‘neither credible nor sensible’.
A Defence Minister also told the House of Commons this morning that ‘the government has not commissioned any contingency plans’ to designate Faslane in this way.
The Guardian quoted ‘one defence source’ as saying: ‘ “It would cost a huge amount of money, running into tens of billions of pounds, to decommission Faslane. Those costs would be factored into any negotiations on an independence settlement. The sovereign base area is an option. It is an interesting idea because the costs of moving out of Faslane are eye-wateringly high.” ‘
It said: ‘These costs would have to be factored into severance payments negotiated with the Scottish government before full independence is declared around two years after the referendum.’
It described the consequent MoD argument as being: ‘As an alternative, the Scottish government would be told it could reduce the costs to Edinburgh if it agreed to allow Faslane to be designated as sovereign UK territory along the lines of the Akrotiri and Dhekelia sovereign base areas (SBAs) in Cyprus.
‘The base could be designated an SBA for an initial period of 10 years – to allow for decommissioning – if the Scottish government rejects out of hand calls to allow Trident to be based in Faslane. If the Scottish government were to accept that Trident should remain in Scotland then a longer lease would be negotiated.’
It is undoubtedly correct that the costs of decommissioning Faslane and Coulport would indeed be ‘eye wateringly high’. It could, however, be argued strongly that this would be a cost that the continuing UK would have to bear alone rather than attempt to pass on to an independent Scotland. These weapons have never been welcome in Scotland as the presence of the long standing peace camp outside Faslane testifies.
It is also reasonable to expect that every possible option is being considered, as contingencies, by MoD officials, with no regard to the political consequences of some of them – like this one.
It is not unreasonable to assume that the Scottish Government would be flexible to some degree on the issue; and indeed the Deputy First Minister has recently publicly accepted that it would be a very long time before nuclear weapons were out of Scotland.
For the Scottish Government the pressure to which it would be most responsive would come from NATO, which could not contemplate the loss of the nuclear deterrent from the UK. There is no serious alternative to Faslane as a base for it.
However, the very notion of declaring the area a British Sovereign Base could not be more incendiary; and is an issue the SNP, whose case for independence has been progressively seen as threadbare, will seize upon with vigour.
The SNP has been dismissed as ‘clueless’ on defence. There could not, though, have been anything more clueless than floating this particular notion.
The remaining issue is this: MoD officials would, responsibly, have to consider and plan for, all theoretical possibilities post-September 2014. This solution may, for now, not be ‘credible’; but it is certainly credible that it has been formulated as one of many.
While the Prime Minister has now dismissed it as ‘not credible’, the issue is now whether, in the increasingly unlikely event of a ‘Yes’ vote to independence, this is the action that the UK Government might attempt to take to retain Faslane as the base for the British nuclear deterrent.
We now know they might.