The SNP Must Choose: Scrap Nukes or Join Nato

It can’t do both.

by Jonathon Shafi

5 June 2023

Former SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon addresses an anti-Trident protest in London, February 2016. Paul Hackett/Reuters

In the 1960s, at the height of the Cold War, the Faslane naval base was chosen as the location in which to host the UK’s nuclear-armed submarine fleet. The deep waters of the Firth of Clyde on the west coast of Scotland would provide a suitable and secluded venue for the early weapons of mass destruction. Today, the base holds a stockpile of 225 nuclear warheads, each eight times as powerful as the bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. 

These developments have been subject to protest and demonstration, ranging from civic mobilisation to direct action. The peace movement was drawn from the traditions of socialist militancy bound up with the working-class movements on the Clyde, as well as from faith groups and assorted leftwing political organisations and parties. This dynamic also played an important role in the development of Scottish national consciousness, with many associated with modern Scottish nationalism having their political roots in anti-nuclear agitation.

For the SNP, opposition to Trident has been an unwavering principle. The erstwhile leader of the party, Nicola Sturgeon, was fond of declaring that she was a member of Scottish CND before joining the SNP. Not only did the issue offer moral ballast to the cause of Scottish independence, and a means to outflank Labour from the left, it necessarily raised the issue of sovereignty. Who made the decision to pollute the beautiful landscape with these nuclear monstrosities? Did Scots have any say in the process, or indeed in the wider foreign policy issues associated with the transatlantic alliance? Such questions furnished previous versions of the SNP with an anti-imperialist and disruptive quality. Not only did they oppose Britain’s so-called nuclear “deterrent”, but the party stood against an independent Scotland becoming a member of Nato.

That was until 2012, when Angus Robertson, now the SNP’s cabinet secretary for constitution, external affairs and culture, led a campaign to change the long-held policy. Robertson argued that the SNP had to assure the foreign policy establishment of Scotland’s intentions, and after a fiery conference debate, the position narrowly won out. Jean Urquhart, an SNP MSP at the time, resigned. Her 35-year-old membership of CND was irreconcilable with the new orientation. “The issue of nuclear disarmament and removing Trident from Scotland’s waters is a red-line issue for me, and I could not remain committed to a party that has committed itself to retaining membership of Nato,” she said.

Opposition to Trident did, however, remain a strong tendency within the independence movement of 2014, and also manifested as one of the largest anti-Trident demonstrations in recent history in 2015. Popularised through the slogan “bairns not bombs”, the link between spending on arms, at a time of austerity in relation to social security and public services, exposed both the economic failures as well as the imperial dimensions of the British state.

Since then, the SNP has hurtled towards a more hawkish world view. Now, acceptance of Nato membership isn’t “pragmatic” or grudging, but fully embraced. Sturgeon, quite irresponsibly, argued that a no fly zone over Ukraine should be kept on the table – a move that would result in a rapid and direct expansion of the war between rival, nuclear-armed states. That was too far even for Alister Jack, the Tory Scottish secretary. Meanwhile, in 2021 the SNP’s defence spokespeople wrote that “an independent Scotland will be a reliable and constructive partner, a staunch ally, and a fierce friend. The cornerstone of its defence policy will be Nato membership.”

Yet at the heart of the party’s policy on Trident and Nato membership is an inherent contradiction, just as there is when it comes to its position on currency and joining the EU.  An independent Scotland can’t become a member of Nato at the same time as disarming Faslane. The notion is fantastical, especially as the base offers the best available waters to store Britain’s nuclear arms.

In 2017, to illustrate the point, Nato’s secretary general Jens Stoltenberg said he welcomed “the UK’s strong contribution to Nato, from its commitment to defence investment to its operational deployments.” Moreover, he argued “the nuclear forces of the Alliance, including those at Clyde Naval Base, are the supreme guarantee of the security of allied countries and populations. The nuclear deterrent is essential for Nato’s deterrent.”

Air chief marshal Stuart Peach, chairman of the Nato Military Committee, visited Faslane in 2019, where he underlined that “the UK’s independent strategic nuclear forces are vital to the overall security of the Alliance” and that “Nato constantly ensures that its nuclear deterrent capabilities remain safe, secure, and effective.” Indeed, the latest Nato Strategic Concept explicitly details the role of British and French nuclear capabilities, which “have a deterrent role of their own and contribute significantly to the overall security of the Alliance”.

In a situation where these matters become concrete and meaningful, upon the realisation of an independent Scottish state, we might expect a further weakening – or indeed a total collapse – of the SNP’s Trident policy. In the eventual analysis, this would be preferable for the party hierarchy if it prevented conflict and discord with Nato. No matter how totemic the issue is, it’s clear the SNP doesn’t have the political fibre or will required to mount such a challenge. Far better, then, that nuclear disarmament remains a slogan to be deployed when useful, rather than putting the issue to the acid test. That, indeed, sums up the SNP’s approach to independence in general.

Jonathon Shafi is a columnist for Novara Media and socialist campaigner, based in Glasgow. He writes the weekly newsletter ‘Independence Captured’.


Build people-powered media.

We’re up against huge power and influence. Our supporters keep us entirely free to access. We don’t have any ad partnerships or sponsored content.

Donate one hour’s wage per month—or whatever you can afford—today.

We’re up against huge power and influence. Our supporters keep us entirely free to access. We don’t have any ad partnerships or sponsored content.

Donate one hour’s wage per month—or whatever you can afford—today.