By Isobel Lindsay
Last year was fraught with two significant nuclear weapon developments and 2018 has started with yet more serious indicators of an accelerating nuclear arms race. What does all this mean for Scotland, which is the site of the UK's entire nuclear arsenal and among the top military targets in Europe?
Last year we held the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), a momentous event virtually ignored by UK media, alongside the rather more covered North Korea nuclear missile tests. So far this year there has been the new US Nuclear Posture Review, Trump’s threat to go nuclear against non-nuclear threats and Putin's announcement of new nuclear-armed cruise missiles and underwater drones.
There may have been an impression in the past two decades that despite the succession of highly destructive interventionist wars, the nuclear situation was fairly static and under control. This was a mistaken impression. Although the total number of warheads had been reduced, much of this was obsolete stock and the process of modernisation continued. Obama started his period in office with the Prague speech on the need to start on the process of abolishing nuclear weapons. In practice he proceeded with a major and very expensive new generation of weapons. This, of course, affects the UK since we lease the missiles from the US.
The multi-laterally negotiated TPNW has its origins in the anger of many of the signatories of the Non-Proliferation Treaty over the failure, in fact the contemptuous attitude, of the nuclear powers to make any progress in the deal they had signed up for. Article 6 agreeing to 'undertake to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to the cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament and on a Treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control'.
The significance of the TPNW is that it provides a full framework for abolition – principles, process, structures. The 122 participating countries didn’t expect immediate success, but the effort made by the nuclear states to try to prevent it taking place is an indication that they do not see it as insignificant.
Despite stagnancy in the implementation of TPNW, its existence is an especially important development if Scotland were to gain independence. There is a substantial political majority in Scotland opposed to Trident. Removing all nuclear weapons from Scottish territory would in effect result in no delivery system in the rest of the UK since there is no other base capable of taking the Trident system.
It took around 14 years to convert the Faslane Polaris base for Trident. To develop a new one would be lengthy, hugely expensive and very controversial. Previously this would have involved negotiations between two states but now if Scotland joined the TPNW, there is a clearly laid out process under UN auspices for states which have the nuclear weapons of other states on their territory and seek their removal. This would be supervised by the International Atomic Energy Agency. It becomes a different ball game than it would have been post 2014.
The SNP, the Greens and some individual Labour politicians have warmly welcomed TPNW but Labour UK has not due to its ongoing support for Trident. Despite said welcome, there remain some potential problems for the SNP. Only one Nato member took part in the conference which negotiated the Treaty and that was only because the Government of the Netherlands was over-ruled by their Parliament. But the Netherlands was the only one state out of 122 which voted against the Treaty at the conclusion of the conference. Nato pressure evidently won in the end.
Norway and North Korea
A country like Norway which has been active in other disarmament initiatives, did not take part. NATO members were under very strong pressure to boycott the TPNW process. One of the more deplorable aspects of Obama's record was taken in the last months of his Presidency. When one would have thought that he had nothing to lose, he approved the intense diplomacy which tried to stop the Treaty conference going ahead. So, if Scotland wishes to remain in Nato it will be under great pressure.
The TPNW allows for member states to participate in military alliances but they must engage in no activities involving nuclear weapon production, deployment or other promotional activities. Any defence policy for an independent Scotland would then require at least a no NATO membership as an option.
The North Korean missile tests were a reminder to the public across the world that the risks of nuclear war had not gone away. For those living in the region, this was a very real source of anxiety. The highly personalised stand-off highlighted the great problem with nuclear weapons in addition to their devastating power; decisions to use these weapons whether in retaliation or pre-emptively must be made in minutes by one or at most a few people with no opportunity for consultation and, once done, no opportunity to change your mind.
As so often, what was missing in the framing of this development was historical background. North Korea acceded to the Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1985 but announced its withdrawal in 2003. Thus returns the significance of the Iraq and Afghan wars on this symbolic day. The message to states identified by the US as enemies was that 'shock and awe' was still very much on the cards. No matter how bad the Korean regime, it is the failure of the old nuclear powers to make convincing progress on disarmament that has got us to where we are.
A new arms race
While the arms race in reality never went away, the beginning of 2018 has seen a sharp acceleration. The US/NATO have never signed up to a 'no first use' policy (China has) but they have not in recent years flaunted it provocatively. The new US nuclear posture review in February has now stated that they would allow the use of nuclear weapons to respond to non-nuclear threats and would deploy new low-yield devices (equivalent to Hiroshima) which could be used in the event of a strategic threat such as a major cyber-attack or a large terror attack. The Trump administration says this is just a clarification of existing policy but it is clearly designed to be provocative and will surely set a precedent for others.
Almost choreographed, just two weeks later, Putin announces that Russia has a new cruise missile with unlimited range that can evade interception and an underwater drone which can carry a nuclear warhead. We don't know whether these have the capacity claimed, but if they do then aircraft carriers and Trident submarines may be white elephants soon. The US State Department spokesperson described these developments as 'destabilising'. If it wasn't so serious, this would be a theatre of the absurd
The UK, of course, is part of this nuclear arms race. The new Trident system will dominate the defence capital budget for years. Its costs are spiralling and will continue to do so, see Linda Pearson’s 'Why we may see the cost of Trident renewal rocket even further' on Common Space for more on this. The technical complexities are substantial, and much is dependent on the new missile development in the US.
No-one seriously sees UK Trident as having any military purpose. It exists for prestige purposes – punching above our weight, seat at the top table. The SNP has had a strong and long-standing anti-nuclear position and has been comfortable with this because there are no great power aspirations. Its ethical and possible future practical problems in relation to Nato are in no way as fundamental as that facing the Corbyn section of the Labour Party.
This is the one big issues on which Corbyn has sold out. He is completely avoiding it, refusing even to talk about trying to change the current party policy despite the fact that not proceeding with Trident renewal would release funding for popular constructive social investment. Even worse, the Shadow Defence Secretary, Nia Griffith, has criticised the Government for not spending enough on defence. The Scottish Labour Party still has an anti-Trident policy and so does Unite in Scotland. It is highly likely that most of the new Labour Party members will also be anti-nuclear so why no attempt to change policy?
Trade unions and the war industry
This can't all or even mainly be blamed on the Parliamentary Labour Party. After the General Election the leadership had sufficient authority to pursue radical approaches. A more important factor has been the position of the GMB and Unite, especially the latter on which Corbyn has been highly dependent upon for support. There are only modest numbers of civilian jobs in Scotland which are Trident related but much more substantial numbers in England.
The submarines are serviced at Devonport, the warhead manufacture and research at Aldermaston/ Burghfield, new submarine construction will be at Barrow and missile manufacture and servicing is in the US. Given the competition for members between Unite and the GMB, both made it clear to the Corbyn team that they would not accept an anti-Trident position just as they pushed Labour into supporting the hugely expensive and risky Hinckley Point nuclear power station development.
The Left must be honest when it talks about the military-industrial complex in recognising that sometimes trade unions are part of it. The solution is clearly to develop and promote a serious defence diversification plan. However, the easier response which some unions and left politicians have taken is simply to drift with establishment policy no matter how appalling. The irony in this is that there has been a reduction in critical voices in Westminster on nuclear weapons since the Labour leadership change.
There used to be Labour rebels like McDonnell and Corbyn who could be relied on to raise these issues. Now they are silent and there is the SNP and one Green. Only those with no historical background can accept the 'nudge/ wink' excuse – they just have to say this now but it will be different if they get into power. Really? Before Faslane was converted to take the UK Polaris subs, Labour Party policy was not to proceed. After the 1964 election, Wilson who was not on the right of the party quickly shifted to supporting Polaris.
At the UK level, the possession of nuclear weapons is a cultural and institutional issue. We are talking about weapons of horrific indiscriminate mas killing but they are still regarded as essential to Great Britain’s status and are substantially underpinned by the military-industrial complex. Delusions of international grandeur are less prevalent for a future Scotland.