Nuclear subs issue submerged ahead of Scotland’s independence poll
As Scotlandprepares to vote on breaking away, London refuses to confront the futureof its nuclear-armed military presence there
Bloomberg in Edinburgh and London
The barren beige and green hills separating Loch Lomond from the coastline of western Scotland present a postcard scene, though with a deadly twist.
Down from the summits dotted with sheep and deer in the chilly waters of Gare Loch, two 150 metre grey submarines lie moored like steel whales. They are the visible part of Britain's Trident nuclear deterrent at the naval base and arms depot, built in the 1960s during the cold war.
As Scotland prepares to vote on breaking away from the UK on September 18, locals say the naval hardware is being ignored by the British government as Prime Minister David Cameron focuses on the economic cost of independence and threats over the currency and pensions.
But should the anti-nuclear nationalists overturn an opinion-poll deficit, the arsenal would end up in a new sovereign state that wants to get rid of it.
"It's as if they've put a big poster in front of it saying 'there's nothing here'," said George Collins, 40, a father of five who lives in Garelochhead, the village at the north end of the loch and the nearest to the base. "The UK government is in an untenable position. It's a huge issue."
British defence chiefs have dismissed the need for plans to move the subs and their missiles from the Faslane base and a nearby arms depot, at least in public.
Defence Secretary Philip Hammond reiterated on May 8 that relocation would cost "billions of pounds, perhaps tens of billions of pounds" and take at least a decade.
While the Scottish nationalists want to remove Trident by around 2020, Hammond said it would depend on protracted negotiations, and that the British government did not expect them to win the referendum anyway.
"The question that has been put to me on many occasions now and the answer will be the same: whether we are preparing a contingency plan to remove our nuclear weapons and submarine base," he said. "And the answer is no, we are not."
Scotland has a semi-autonomous government in Edinburgh that's led by the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP). It has control over health, education, transportation and some social spending. Britain is responsible for defence and foreign policy.
"The major strategic interest Britain has in Scotland is undoubtedly Faslane," said John Curtice, a political science professor at Strathclyde University in Glasgow.
The Scottish government's blueprint for what would be Europe's newest independent state calls Trident "an affront to basic decency" and would oversee the "speediest safe withdrawal" of the weapons from Scotland.
It plans to preserve the strategic and economic importance of the Faslane base by turning it into the headquarters of the new nuclear-free Scottish navy.
SNP leader Alex Salmond's party reckons contingency plans are being made for Faslane, in the event that the 307-year-old union with England and Wales ends.
Polls show the nationalists are trailing the pro-Britain Better Together campaign. One by ICM Research in April put the "No" lead at three percentage points.
Making a contingency plan for housing Trident would suggest the government was less confident about winning the vote, said Malcolm Chalmers, a defence analyst at the Royal United Services Institute in London. "Politically it would be dangerous to make those plans now because it would show you expect to lose the referendum."