Preparing for negotiations on nuclear weapons

Extract from a book A Better Nation


Malcolm Chalmers and William Walker: Chapter 28: 'Preparing for negotiations on nuclear weapons', in A Better Nation: The Challenges of Scottish Independence by Gerry Hassan and Simon Barrow, 2022 (pp297 – 306)

Establishing close bilateral defence and security relations would be in the interest of both Scotland and rUK, and of the community of allied countries, if Scotland were to become a sovereign nation state. rUK’s sense of security – and its power - would be diminished if Edinburgh and London failed to work together effectively. Scotland would be a small country with limited abilities to defend itself alone in a difficult and fast-evolving security environment.

Abroad, its special geography and frontier with the North Atlantic would lend it strategic significance that is expected to increase as global warming opens Arctic sea-lanes. Although Ireland-like neutrality has supporters in Scotland, and would be an option in the absence of cooperative arrangements, it is not the Scottish Government’s objective. It would not be welcomed by states on whom an independent Scotland would rely for recognition as a responsible new member of the European community of states.

Scotland’s Future, the 2013 White Paper issued observed that ‘Improving the way defence is delivered in and for Scotland is one of the most pressing reasons for independence’ (Scottish Government, 2013). It went on to explain the envisaged purposes of an independent Scotland’s foreign and defence policies and provided a list of capabilities needed to achieve them. Some would be acquired through division or recasting of the UK’s existing assets, some purchased anew and some dispensed with, subject to negotiation.

Considerable detail was provided in a ten-page section. Little was said, however, about the most significant and controversial issue – the fate of the nuclear bases at Faslane and Coulport whose closure the SNP has long sought. The paper sets out reasons for the Party’s objection to nuclear weapons, emphasizing their ‘indiscriminate and inhumane destructive power’, opportunity costs and burden on public expenditure. But the commitment to securing ‘their speediest safe withdrawal’ from Scotland was left vague, lacking a persuasive accompanying statement on implementation. There was evident desire to avoid being drawn into discussion of the many complications, an evasion practised throughout the referendum campaign.

The UK Government, for its part, agreed that defence ‘matters in the debate about independence’ (HM Government (2013). In a detailed 88-page report, it laid out the strategic and economic reasons why it believed that Scotland’s defence benefited from the Union. On the nuclear question, it argued that Scotland’s unwillingness ‘to subscribe to the nuclear aspects of NATO’s Strategic Concept … would represent a significant complication to its membership.’ It asserted that: ‘The UK Government has made it clear that it is not planning for Scottish independence or to move the strategic nuclear deterrent from Her Majesty’s Naval Base Clyde. If the result of the referendum were to lead to the current situation being challenged, then other options would be considered, but any alternative solution would come at huge cost. It would be an enormous exercise to reproduce the facilities elsewhere.’

Despite both sides acknowledging the potentially radical consequences of Scotland’s independence for the future of the UK’s nuclear force, it did not figure large in a referendum campaign dominated by national aspiration, the economy and other issues that mattered more to the electorate. It would be no surprise if defence again took a back seat in a second referendum.

Boxed in on Trident

Had there been a Yes vote, the Scottish and UK Governments – together with publics on both sides of the border – would have been woefully unprepared for negotiations on nuclear weapons that would have swiftly followed. The difficulty of finding common ground would have been exacerbated by the manner in which governments and political parties had boxed themselves in through stances adopted and actions taken over many years. Public opinion on nuclear weapons in Scotland is not uniform, with polling answers dependent on the questions being asked. Nonetheless, commitment to the removal of all nuclear weapons from Scotland has been unwavering within the SNP and has found strong support in other political parties (especially the Greens and Labour) and in the wider population.

Besides ending Scotland’s engagement with nuclear weapons, their removal has been advocated by the SNP as a means of releasing bases and surrounding areas so that Scotland could establish defence forces and infrastructures appropriate to the needs of a Nordic-like country. Faslane would ‘become the main operating base for the Scottish Navy, and the headquarters for the Scottish defence forces as a whole’ (Scottish Government, 2013). Throughout, there has been a tendency to downplay the immensity and complexity of the task of relocating the nuclear force from its bases in Scotland and their conversion to other uses.

Whereas the Scottish commitment to denuclearisation has been fixed in the imagination of what independence means, the UK Government has been boxed in by decades of investment in weaponry and infrastructure and their associated policies and careers, and by the focusing on a single Scotland-based weapon system after the scrapping of airborne capabilities in the 1990s. Throughout - in the adoption of Polaris in the 1960s, its replacement by Trident in the 1990s, and in Trident’s current renewal – no concessions have been made to Scottish demands for the weapons’ removal. Since 1998, the UK Government’s monopoly on decision has been framed by the Scotland Act and its strict reservation of defence policy to London and ring-fencing of nuclear issues. Holyrood’s views and votes on Trident have had no formal consequence and have been routinely ignored in Westminster.

Commitment to the Scottish bases by successive UK governments has therefore been persistent, inflexible and often imperious. The 2002 decision to base the seven new Astute class attack submarines at Faslane, which is nearing full implementation, has narrowed longer-term basing options in England. In 2016, the UK Government announced that it would proceed with the manufacture of four Dreadnought Trident-missile-carrying submarines, implementing the 2007 decision on renewal, and confirmed that they would be based in Scotland. There is no indication that the Ministry of Defence has done any contingency planning for a scenario in which Scotland gained independence.

The responsibility to prepare

When the referendum campaigns on Scotland’s independence were launched in 2013, there was little expectation in Edinburgh or London that it would result in a yes vote. There was felt to be some justification, therefore, in postponing the day when serious contingency planning should be undertaken. In 2021, this no longer seems appropriate. Although uncertainty remains over timing and questions of legality are unresolved, there is a distinct possibility that a second referendum will be held in the next few years, with an outcome that might well be fatal to the Union.

That being the case, each side has a responsibility to consider what a yes vote would entail in advance of the negotiations that would swiftly follow. This applies especially to nuclear weapons given the difficulties that they present and their great domestic and international significance. Brexit has vividly demonstrated the dangers of engaging in complex negotiations without sufficient prior thought and preparation, and of room for manoeuvre immediately being constrained by the painting of the reddest of red lines.

Of course, neither side would wish fully to display its hand in advance, and much would remain to be worked out and decided through negotiation. However, inhibition of private and public discussion of these nuclear affairs is unhealthy. It should not be allowed to persist in the run-up to another referendum. In the remaining paragraphs we suggest the assumptions that should shape approaches to negotiations, and the issues and questions that will demand attention. We can only sketch them given the need for brevity.

Guiding assumptions

Contemplation of the post-vote nuclear negotiations should rest on four particular assumptions, irrespective of the referendum’s timing. Firstly, they would be conducted against the background of rivalry among great powers, involving the US, China and Russia in particular, all of whom continue to attach a high value to their nuclear deterrent forces. Europe will be affected and concerned about its own protection. At the same time, dramatic technological changes (cyber, space weapons, etc) will be posing fundamental questions (already being asked) about the future safety and reliability of nuclear deterrence, about conventional and nuclear force structures, and about the opportunity costs of heavy nuclear investment. The changes may be particularly unsettling for the UK, France and other states possessing small and relatively vulnerable nuclear arsenals. Although rUK’s support for nuclear deterrence within NATO would be unlikely to waver, its desire and ability to maintain nuclear forces over the medium and long terms cannot be taken for granted.

Secondly, Scotland would choose and be expected to become a non-nuclear weapon state under international law (notably the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, NPT) and would seek membership of other pertinent multilateral treaties and agreements when it attained sovereignty. Although elements of a post-independence government might well be sympathetic towards the 2021 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), it would only consider joining it if NATO’s current bar on membership had been lifted. rUK’s right to be regarded as the UK’s continuator state under the NPT, inheriting its legal rights to possess nuclear weapons along with obligations to pursue nuclear disarmament, would be accepted internationally. A nuclear weapon state’s operation of its entire nuclear force out of the territory of a (truculent) non-nuclear weapon state would nevertheless be unprecedented and attract much international attention, possibly causing division among governments.

Thirdly, nuclear agreement(s) between Scotland and rUK, as sovereign states, would of necessity take the form of an international treaty or treaties, in conformity with international law and practice. They would require ratification by both Holyrood and Westminster Parliaments.

Fourthly, neither quick removal of nuclear weapons from Scotland nor an acceptance of their indefinite stay there would be politically acceptable and feasible and could therefore provide basis for an agreement. How to conceive and manage transition to a situation in which nuclear weapons are absent from Scotland, without undermining the security of either party, would therefore be the question. The four submarines under construction at Barrow-in-Furness are due to enter service in the early to mid 2030s. Even if an independent Scotland conceded to their stay over their projected lifetimes (into the 2060s), which is hard to imagine, planning for the phasing in of alternative arrangements would have to begin decades in advance, given lengthy procurement lead-times. As a negotiated phase-out would be consistent with each country’s non-proliferation and disarmament obligations under the NPT, it would surely be regarded as reasonable in most capitals and would be hard for NATO states to oppose, despite any misgivings about risks to the alliance. The US attitude and role would be vital. It would expect each side to compromise, the onus falling especially on Scotland which would depend on US – and rUK – sponsorship to become a new member of NATO.

This fourth assumption implies that agreement between London and Edinburgh would be required on two sets of issues, possibly requiring separate albeit interrelated treaties: one regarding rUK’s nuclear force’s operation out of Faslane and Coulport prior to phase-out, the other the phase-out’s implementation and timetable. Another agreement, not discussed here, would be required between Scotland and the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna on the safeguarding of civil nuclear materials and facilities, a necessary step in its passage to becoming a non-nuclear weapon state under the NPT.

Issues requiring attention in regard to continuation

Nuclear submarines would continue operating, it may be conjectured, out of the Scottish bases into the 2030s or 2040s. The terms under which this occurred would require negotiation and settlement. In broad brush, significant issues needing address and questions needing answers would include:

The legal status of nuclear bases in Scotland. Decisions would be required on whether Faslane and Coulport’s lands would be leased by rUK or maintained as its sovereign base areas. Whichever was chosen – the former seems much more likely – a number of familiar questions would require attention, including the bases’ usage, territorial boundaries, responsibility for their security, provision of services and utilities, overflight, criminal jurisdiction, and grounds for termination (Woodliffe, 1992).

Rights of consultation and decision. What rights would the Scottish Government and Parliament possess to be consulted, and to decide, on matters pertaining to the nuclear force’s development, operation and regulation when it is still located in the Clyde? What obligations would be placed upon them? Those rights and obligations would require delineation. Some lessons might be drawn from the basing of US nuclear forces, including Polaris submarines in the Holy Loch, in the UK and elsewhere, including NATO’s nuclear sharing agreements and consultation and planning mechanisms. However, a non-nuclear weapon state’s hosting of a nuclear weapon state’s nuclear force, and a submarine force to boot, would be unprecedented in several respects. How to reconcile Scotland’s felt right of influence over the usage of nuclear forces operated from its territory with rUK’s demand for freedom from constraint in its exercise of deterrence, all subject to the NPT’s stipulations, would be a tough question on which innovation may be required. One can anticipate that rights, or their absence, to participate in decisions on the use of nuclear weapons based in the Clyde would be an especially sensitive and controversial matter in Scottish politics, since it touches on fundamental aspects of a state’s and people’s sovereignty and survival.

The control and management of waterways. Under the Law of the Sea, the Gareloch (Faslane) and Loch Long (Coulport) would become Scotland’s internal waters, with stretches of the Firth of Clyde and down the coast becoming its territorial waters. How would traffic involving submarines and other craft in these areas be managed and by whom, and what rights would rUK retain to operate sensors and other equipment and forces to ensure the submarines’ protection?

Transport of nuclear warheads to Coulport. There would be a need for joint oversight and physical protection, with carefully assigned roles to police and other authorities, of the transport of warheads to and from Coulport across Scotland’s roads.

Intelligence gathering. What role would be ascribed to Scotland and its fledgling intelligence agency in the gathering and processing of information relevant to the nuclear force’s stationing and operation?

Issues requiring attention in regard to phase-out

Almost from day one, rUK would need to embark on a search for alternative sites for basing its nuclear submarine force. This matter was discussed at length in the book that we published twenty years ago, since when it has often been assumed that relocation in the UK (for instance to sites in Devon and Cornwall) would face severe practical difficulties (Chalmers and Walker, 2001). A more recent study by the Royal United Services Institute suggested that relocation in England might be possible given enough time, financial investment and political commitment. (Chalmers and Chalmers, 2014). These claims would now have to be put to the test. If it were concluded that no other sites were viable, the development of alternative nuclear weapon systems or the eventual abandonment of rUK’s nuclear deterrent would come into play. Come what may, a decision to establish Scotland as an independent state would trigger, inevitably, a great debate on rUK’s nuclear future for which there has been no preparation hitherto.

Timing, cost and compliance – and their uncertainties - would haunt the inquiries and negotiations. How much time would be required, and should be allowed, to decide on new sites and their plausibility? What would relocation or development of alternative systems cost and could it be borne within a diminished defence budget? How much uncertainty could and should be tolerated? Would governments be drawn towards a step-by-step evolutionary approach, or would actions have to be time-limited or some mixture of the two (this is reminiscent of debates about nuclear disarmament)? How could agreements on phase-out be made binding, and how should compliance be overseen and ensured?

The phasing out of rUK’s nuclear activities and capabilities in the Clyde, and subsequent transfer of bases to Scottish usage, would require close cooperation between the rUK and Scottish Governments. Issues requiring attention would include the scale and timing of decommissioning, decontamination and dismantlement of nuclear facilities and assets; disposal of residues; allocation of responsibilities; and sharing of costs. Although agreement on principles, obligations and processes would be required early on, details could be worked out over a longer timeframe.


Agreement on nuclear weaponry is a necessary condition for a wider agreement between Edinburgh and London on the terms of separation. Negotiations are likely to be hard-fought, but the broad parameters of the landing zone seem clear – basing for some time, but not indefinitely.

Such a settlement is likely to reflect an equilibrium of discomfort between the two parties. Scotland’s negotiators will have to explain to impatient disarmers why they are prepared to accept the basing of nuclear weapons on the Clyde for a decade and possibly longer. rUK’s negotiators will have to explain at home and abroad how the running of its nuclear deterrent out of foreign territory can be made to work, albeit temporarily, why the submarine force’s relocation or development of an alternative system will be necessary, and how it might be achieved with scarcer defence resources.

Whilst agreement on main parameters should be attainable, negotiations on detailed content are likely to be difficult and fractious, especially if issues have not been analysed and solutions explored in advance. It is incumbent on each side to prepare the ground. If a referendum delivered a vote for independence, Edinburgh and London would be impelled, we have argued, to negotiate treaty-based agreements on, firstly, terms of the nuclear force’s operation out of the Scottish bases in a transitional period and, secondly, the nuclear bases’ phasing out and conversion to other use.

Yet the nuclear issue could also be a powerful force for moderation in the wider relationship. It would be hard to see rUK signing up to a broad agreement on close economic cooperation if Scotland insisted on rapid removal of the nuclear force. It is also hard to see Scotland accepting long-term basing if rUK played hard-ball on the wider settlement. A spirit of compromise on the nuclear issue will require a similar spirit in other fields. If there is intransigence, a more radical break in relations could result, doing harm to the countries’ and their allies’ security and to their international relations.


Cabinet Office (2021), Global Britain in a Competitive Age: The Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy.

Chalmers, M. and Walker, W. (2001), Uncharted Waters: The UK, Nuclear Weapons and the Scottish Question, East Linton: Tuckwell Press.

Chalmers, H. and Chalmers, M. (2014), Relocation, Relocation, Relocation: could the UK’s Nuclear Force Be Moved After Independence?, London: Royal United Services Institute.

HM Government (2013), Scotland Analysis: Defence.

Scottish Government (2013), Scotland’s Future: Your Guide to an Independent Scotland.

Woodliffe, J. (1992), The Peacetime Use of Foreign Military Installations under Modern International Law, Leiden: Martinus Nijhoff.