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Agenda: Why ordering Trident out promptly would be disastrous for Scotland

TRIDENT is not a negotiable issue.

That, at least, is what is being said, somewhat imprecisely, by politicians on both sides of the constitutional divide. What we are not being told is just as telling: when, or even how, the nuclear missiles and submarines that carry them will be removed from their bases on the Clyde.

This posturing is strange, given how flexible the Scottish Government appears to be in the White Paper. It may simplistically outline a clear "non-nuclear" position but its specifics are nuanced. Crucially, it doesn't set a firm deadline for Trident to go. It only expresses a "view" that Trident would be removed by the end of the first parliament of an independent Scotland. That's 2021 and it leaves plenty of room for negotiations. The same goes for the White Paper's overall nuclear stance, which is not hardline. The Scottish Government could have followed New Zealand's 1980s move to ban all countries, including America, from bringing nuclear weapons onto its land or waters. Instead, the paper asserts the more flexible position of enthusiastic Nato members such as Norway which, while not maintaining their own weapons, does not forbid allies from bring them in on ships.

All this suggests an independent Scotland could reach an amicable, negotiated arrangement on Trident, perhaps keeping the weapons for longer than some on the Yes side might desire. Such a policy is to be commended. It would allow Scotland to be non-nuclear, begin its defence relations with the rest of the UK in a positive and constructive atmosphere and, crucially, make a creditable case to join Nato.

However, there are voices that want to go back to an older, harder position whereby Scotland would order Trident out promptly, on a timetable of its own choosing. This would be disastrous for Scotland and would make Nato entry almost impossible.

Nato is a nuclear alliance and the UK its most important European voice. This should be faced honestly.Also, a hardline attitude on Trident would almost certainly have a powerfully detrimental effect during Scotland's negotiations with the rUK and other partners on everything from sterling to EU accession. Major European states will back the rUK, not Scotland, in any independence negotiations. If Scotland is seen to be dictating on Trident, it will be punished. If London says that Scotland is being unreasonable, it will damage the new state's interests.

In fact, I believe being flexible about Trident's removal would be more likely to achieve the greatest hope of the anti-nuclear supporters of the Yes Campaign: the denuclearisation of the rUK. Getting rid of nuclear weapons in Scotland is an irrelevant achievement. A small nation of five million people is never going to be a nuclear power. However, if the rUK chose to denuclearise, that could have global ramifications, for instance changing the idea of permanent membership on the UN Security Council.

The rationale behind forcing a prompt removal of Trident is that it would compel the rUK to disarm. Yet such a confrontational step would more likely than not force a rUK government, with its back to the wall and a very short timeframe in which to decide, to rebase the weapons outside Scotland. In contrast, giving the rUK time to come to terms with the reality of Scottish independence, it is just as likely, and would perhaps be more likely, to decide to give up nuclear weapons, but under a democratic and not dictated process. After all, Britain is already finding the cost of maintaining the weapons difficult to bear.

Trident is, without doubt, the key international issue of the independence debate. It leaves Scotland with two options. The first is a confrontational demand for the weapons to go promptly. This damages any possibility of easy Nato membership and hurts long-term relations with what would probably remain a nuclearised UK. The second, as suggested by the White Paper, is more likely to cause UK to denuclearise and is the only position that a country ready to be independent should take.

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