Facing The Bear: Scotland and the Cold War

Trevor Royle

Birlinn, £25

LIE flat in a ditch or a hole and cover your head, face and hands as fast as you can with some of your clothes.

Grimly risible advice (and not just because of what we know of the impact of the Chernobyl reactor disaster) from a government public information film, one of several produced in the late 1970s and 1980s on dealing with the fallout from a nuclear attack by the Soviet Union.

In that period, Cold War tensions were at their highest since the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 and, almost a decade before that, the Westminster government Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) had produced a secret report estimating that the carnage caused in Britain by 132 atomic bombs “of the Nagasaki type” would be 1,378,000 killed, 177,000 in Scotland.

The JIC list for 1972 predicted that, in Scotland, Glasgow and Edinburgh, the Kinloss, Leuchars, Lossiemouth, Holy Loch, Faslane, Coulport and Pitrevie naval, air and military bases and the Buchan, Saxa Vord, Forss and West Murkle main communication and early warning facilities would be predicted targets.

As the distinguished military historian, journalist and commentator Trevor Royle demonstrates in his engrossing new book: “Throughout the Cold War it was acknowledged (though not always accepted) that Scotland was on the front line and the presence of so much nuclear hardware and the associated command, control and communications infrastructure meant that the country was a prime target for Soviet aggression or retaliation.”

Like a military commander at the top of his game, Royle marshals his material to maximum effect to show how Scotland has been shaped by, and also helped shape, the Cold War, which began in 1945 and ended after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. He ranges far and wide and has that rare talent to marry the local with the geopolitical. During the 30-year period when the US Navy had its Polaris submarine base at Holy Loch, for instance, the illegitimacy rate in nearby Dunoon rose from 6.3% in 1961 to 15.3% the next year and, at one stage, the town was reputed to have 140 taxis, the biggest concentration anywhere in Britain.

On the global front, Royle demonstrates how Scottish servicemen played their part, often heroically, in the tensions and proxy wars that were ignited during the Cold War, including, in the former category, the Berlin airlift and, in the latter, the Korean War.

Royle explains how Scotland’s location on Nato’s northern flank (the north-east Atlantic) made it pivotal in any war with the Soviets, who were viewed as seeking to further spread communism and achieve global domination. This country’s situation led to the establishment of the Polaris base and the facilities at Faslane and Coulport for Trident, “the ultimate Cold War weapon”, and its nuclear warheads to counter the developing Soviet threat.

The site remains a comprehensible (not Royle’s adjective) focus for protest after the controversial government decision in 2015, at a time of austerity and in a post-Cold War era of asymmetric warfare, to replace Trident with a more powerful weapons system at a cost of £41 billion.

But this is not simply a story of military hardware and confrontation. Royle is very interesting on how the Cold War influenced our cultural life from the novel to poetry and the protest song, perhaps most notably the anti-Polaris ditty Ding Dong Dollar (“Oh ye cannae spend a dollar when ye’re deid”), inspired by the Rev Dr George Macleod of the Iona Community, who gave a meeting his response to the argument that the Americans would bring wealth to the Dunoon area: “Of course, you cannot spend a dollar when you are dead.”

Royle concludes by asking if we are facing a new Cold War. He believes not, partly because Vladimir Putin’s Russia is not a dominant world power, despite the President’s bully-boy tactics, while he does not have an ideological movement or proxy states behind him (apart perhaps from Syria). Royle, probably correctly, sees internet-based cyber warfare as the new unclear and present threat; what we might call Code Wars.