Next month, there will be three days of activism at Faslane Naval Base, calling for an end to Weapons of Mass Destruction on the Clyde. The current fleet of trident submarines are due to be decomissioned in the late 2020s, an ideal opportunity to rid our little corner of the world of nuclear weapons. As we take our place in the international stage and assume full control over our state, we must look at what messages being a nuclear power sends out and whether that’ the kind of nation we want to be.
As we go forward to Independence, we must always bear in mind that we will be creating a new nation state to finally take its place on in the international community, and we must consider what that state will look like. Under UK domination we have had no opportunities to control what is dumped onto us, but under independence we must take responsibility for our own safety and our own security, bearing in mind our international responsibilities to the safety and security of the rest of the world.
The use of nuclear weapons is illegal under the 1949 Geneva Convention which demands that parties to any conflict must distinguish between civilian and military targets. But nuclear weapons are indiscriminate, they kill everything in a wide area – people, animals, vegetation, everything. As such they are not designed to merely end the military threat of another state, by targetting its military, but to cause widespread devastation, and undermine the ability of a state to rebuild. Nuclear weapons have no legitimate purpose. The demand that a state should put on its military is defense of the people within, but nuclear weapons cannot in any way defend the people of Scotland, they can only be used aggressively (and somewhat spitefully) against an identified external enemy.
The only wartime use of nuclear weapons was in the Second World War, where nearly a quarter of a million people were killed when the US dropped atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, and left many more ill, injured and disabled through the radioactive fallout. These were not soldiers but ordinary civilians who happened to live in a country which the US identified as an enemy. Since then, the main justification of the holding of nuclear weapons is for “deterrence”.
In the 1980s we were reassured that Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) would keep the pesky Ruskis from nuking us. In the post-soviet world our enemies are more amophous, comprised of “evildoers” who are out to get us. No particular states, other than possibly Iran and North Korea, are actually identified as solidified threats, instead there is a vague sense of “those who hate our freedoms” and - not content with the use of chemical weapons and militarised dones which can kill indiscriminately with no risk to the aggressor state – consequently we need to retain WMD to sufficiently scare anyone who may think of any kind of retaliation on our home soil.
The retention of nuclear weapons comes with a paternalistic attitude from the state to its people. It asserts that the threat to the people living within comes from outside, and that the state requires military strength, including the ability to devastate those outsiders with total destruction should it be necessary. It encourages people to look to the “external other”, to the “evildoers”, as the threat. This narrative asserts that the state, as the ultimate protector of the people, is willing to destroy anyone who threatens their wellbeing, but the main threat from nuclear weapons is faced by the people in close proximity to where they are held.
Outwith Hiroshima and Nagasaki, all of the deaths and injuries caused by nuclear weapons have been inflicted on the people of the states which hold them. In the 1980s, when the Cold War was at its height, leaks and explosions caused multiple deaths and extensive radiation sickness in large groups of people. Many of these accidents were not revealed for years. Faslane is situated only thirty miles away from Glasgow, Scotland’s main population centre. An accident at Faslane would have massive consequences for the population. The presence of nuclear weapons does not make the people of the country safe, it puts them in danger.
Beyond the paternalism and the demand to ignore the internal threat posed, is buried other idealised masculine hegemonic ideals. The idea of being a “strong state”, a hard man of international relations; the coercive control, the idea that in the background we have a devastating weapons, which could always be used if people piss us off enough; and the prestige and power associated with being a nuclear state, one of “the club”. The Ode to Power, that lies behind the desire for WMD belies a masculinised diplomatic strategy of strength, threat and coercion to achieve aims. The purpose of nuclear weapons is not for actual use, merely for potential use, the theory behind holding them is that by holding these weapons we will never need to use them, because the externalised other will be too afraid of the consequences to attack us, allowing us to act with impunity.
But such threats come with heavy cost. Apart from the safety risks that they pose, the financial, natural and labour resources that they take up is intense. It is suggested that it will cost approximately £20 billion to replace Trident, which takes up a great deal of the coastline of the Clyde, both for housing and for exercises while several hundred people are employed purely to maintain these weapons. All of these resources could be better spent. At a time when we are being told that we must tighten our belts and accept austerity, the profligacy of spending such a huge quantity of money on weapons which cannot be used, begs the question of the opportunity cost. Rather than spending this money on the immediate welfare needs of the population – on education, healthcare and social security, the money is being spent on an status symbol to buy international negotiating power through threat.
The UK approach to international relations has for hundreds of years to demonstrate superior military power, threatening and coercing the rest of the world to act in its interests, while taking money from its own domestic economy to finance this. Part of the post-colonial balance of power in the world, nuclear weapons allow dominant states to coerce non-nuclear states to do their bidding, maintaining the First World differential. It is a lose-lose game – the countries which the UK coerces are compelled to give up the resources of their country in their desire to appease the passive-aggression of the globally dominant nuclear powers, while the taxes the people of the UK are squandered.
The paternalism inherent in demanding that citizens accept the real and immediate risks of holding such weapons in exchange for vague, ill-defined external risks is unacceptable in a transparent and democratic state; the macho narrative of the “hard man” state which can bully and coerce others into doing its bidding should have no place in our new country; the prestige that we seek should come from others respecting, collaborating and negotiating with us on an equal basis, and the distribution of resources should prioritise the wellbeing of our citizens rather than the potential harms that we can do to the citizens of other countries.
We have spent too long under UK protection and domination, feeding from its prestige as a former colonial power and benefitting from its post-colonial exploitation. We have been reluctantly complicit. We now have the opportunity to forge a new path and nuclear weapons are merely an obstacle in the way. When we enter into the field of international relations as an independent entity, we cannot allow our new state to play the coercive, bullying manipulator, instead these relations must be built on mutual respect and equality; domestically we should not rely on a domineering state for patriarchal protection, but ensure that our business and personal dealings leave people in other countries with a high impression of Scotland and its people – that they are people who value the lives and livelihoods of others, and consequently are worthy of reciprocal value – not from fear of retaliation, but from the desire for peace.