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Macmillan's sell-out a vital lesson for Scotland

Exactly 54 years ago protracted and angry discussions took place between American President Dwight Eisenhower and UK Prime Minister Harold Macmillan about the placing of the Polaris nuclear weapons system in Scotland.

It is vital to recall what happened because this has direct, indeed fundamental, relevance in the context of the current debate about Scotland's potential independence.

There was a serious dispute between the President and the Prime Minister about where the Polaris submarines should be sited - and also about who should control the weapons of mass destruction within them. The UK Government proposed a site at Loch Linnhe, near Fort William, because it was a reasonable distance from Glasgow. The Americans rejected this, claiming Mr Macmillan had earlier agreed on the site they wanted on the Clyde, perilously near Glasgow, Scotland's most populous city, which was less than 20 miles away, as the crow flies. There was then a further dispute about who should actually control any launch of the deadly missiles from the submarines.

The Americans made it brutally clear they found the British positions on both issues unacceptable. Mr Eisenhower eventually told Mr Macmillan bluntly he had to think again. The Prime Minister duly did as he was told. The British Cabinet met, and it rolled over. Everything was given to the Americans as they wished. Westminster was utterly, and pitifully, in thrall to Washington.

This information is directly based on the account in the long, thorough and altogether magisterial biography of Harold Macmillan by Lord Williams of Elvel that was published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson five years ago. Charles Williams, a Labour peer, is a scrupulous biographer; he has also written well researched studies of Konrad Adenauer, West Germany's first post-war Chancellor, and Charles de Gaulle, the former French President. Williams' narrative of the negotiations on Polaris between Premier Macmillan and President Eisenhower was written after he studied documents in the UK National Archives at Kew and the Eisenhower Library in the US.

I read his biography of Macmillan when it was published and the significance of the passage about Britain's supine behaviour over Polaris hit me hard. Its essence remained in the back of my mind, but I forgot where I had read it. I spent some of the weekend trying to source it, and when I eventually did find it I was staggered. The British feebleness was not only pathetic; it was reckless, and it indicated contempt for the safety and security of Scotland.

The debate about the future of Trident - the current successor to Polaris - is crucial in the continuing Scottish referendum campaign. The story of how the Polaris weapons came to be sited on the Clyde is deeply and alarmingly apposite. It is a straightforward story of abject submission. Scotland's interests seem to have been regarded as of zero consequence when the key decisions were taken - by the Americans.

Prime Minister Macmillan no doubt thought he had done his best. He certainly put up at least some resistance before he gave in. He was proud of his Scottish background. But Scotland for him was essentially a playground, a place of recreation, full of grouse moors and rich men's castles.

His entry in the Dictionary Of National Biography (written by his fellow Tory Lord Blake) insists he was, and I quote directly, "determined to keep in with America". There you have it, in six simple words. Ultimately, America was more important to the British Prime Minister than Scotland.

Harold Macmillan was not the first or the last British premier to think in this way. Yet America's President Reagan ordered his military forces to invade Grenada, a Commonwealth country whose head of state was our Queen, without even telling Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. During the Falklands crisis the US Secretary Of State Al Haig and its Ambassador to the UN Jeane Kirkpatrick were both inclined to take the side of Argentina.

An independent Scotland would, I trust, enjoy good relations with the US. But it would also defend - in the true sense of the word - its people's best interests. It would be far less likely to be America's poodle.

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Local government

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