The locals are friendly, the air is clean and sharp like the waters of Gare Loch; Scotland at its more bucolic. But there’s a traffic jam.
It’s not just a few hardcore punters angling in the pre-dawn gloom for a wee early-opening dram at The Anchor Inn, Garelochhead’s only pub, but genuine gridlock, about a kilometre-long tailback down the A814 south toward Dumbarton.
It happens every morning; commuters queuing to enter Her Majesty’s Naval Base Clyde, just another day’s work at a bastion better known in the British military establishment as Faslane, the massive base that clings to the north-eastern shore of Gare Loch. A few kilometres to the west at Coulport, there’s a similar morning scene at the Royal Naval Armaments Depot on Loch Long.
The 160-odd warheads that comprise Britain’s nuclear arsenal are housed here, and only here, away from prying eyes and in convenient isolation from London.
Britain transferred its nuclear delivery system from flight-borne to submarine-delivered decades ago, opting for a missile system known as Trident. Today, the four Vanguard-class submarines of the line — HMS Vanguard, HMS Victorious, HMS Vigilant and HMS Vengeance — that carry the nukes and their complement call these lochs home; otherwise they’re prowling the depths of the nearby North Atlantic.
Apart from the rather sad “peace camp” of techno-coloured caravans that’s been rooted in protest opposite the Faslane base since 1982, the locals are proud of what goes on around these waters. They know they are at the same time, a long way away but also at the centre of Important Things. At Garelochhead’s Anchor Inn, the walls are lined with stirring oil paintings of submarines steaming down Gare Loch to defend the realm.
There is a proud military tradition in these waters of Western Scotland; the Clydeside docks further south in Glasgow have built British warships since the 1840s. Officers from the bases like to escape to The Anchor Inn for a taste of normal life, away from geopolitics and defence planning. They take their pints and a feed and retreat to discreetly watch the rugby on the pub’s TV. At the bar, opinions are as robust as the drink. The clientele is, in the main, of the belief that Scotland’s independence movement “will get a bloody nose” in an independence referendum in 2014, which happens to be the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, a legendary victory over the English. But, no fans of the English, the drinkers here insist they are no less Scots for their views.
Equipped during the West’s long Cold War with the Soviet Union, the naval bases are sited here for a reason, and not just because they are a long way from London and in relative proximity to the once and perhaps future enemies to Europe’s east. The lochs are narrow and secluded, making land and sea access easily policed (the isolation is also useful in the event of nuclear accidents.) They are also very deep — submarine deep — and, in the upper reaches of the Firth of Clyde, are a relatively short sail to the cavernous channels of the North Atlantic, NATO’s tactical waters. According to local lore, the low and near-permanent cloud cover here also has advantages, lest passing spy satellites wish to zoom in using something more powerful than Google Earth.
Locals estimate as many as 5,000 people commute from nearby towns like Dumbarton, Helensburgh and even the outer suburbs of Glasgow, to work at the bases, from scientists and technicians to those mucking out submariners’ barracks and pulling pints at the facilities’ pubs.
And then there are the thousands more Scots reliant on the bases; local businesses including the Anchor Inn, and the lochside guest houses where proud parents stay to visit their uniformed offspring — Scotland’s so-called “nuclear families”.
But for how long? Making Scotland non-nuclear is a core campaign pledge of Edinburgh’s ruling Scottish National Party. Its leader, Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond, recently told the Scottish Parliament: “It is inconceivable that an independent nation of 5.25 million people would tolerate the continued presence of weapons of mass destruction on its soil.”
If Scots vote for independence from London in that 2014 referendum, and Salmond’s SNP is true to its word, the bases will have to go.
“We’d be wiped out overnight,” says the Anchor Inn’s young barman, Alan Scott, as he tests his Addams Family questions on The Global Mail for a pub trivia night. “This whole area would be reduced to a ghost town.”
Unsurprisingly, this part of Western Scotland tends to vote with its wallet: In the 2010 British elections, the SNP came a poor fourth. In last year’s Scottish elections, the SNP held the local seat, but aided in significant part by its three main opponents splitting the unionist vote.
The dismantling of Faslane and Coulport has been described as “the nightmare scenario” for Britain’s defence establishment. Scottish political commentator and author Gerry Hassan says London has been “blindsided” by Scotland’s emerging independence movement. “There wasn’t any serious scenario planning done until 2009,” he says. “Now they are awash with them, all frantically playing catch-up.”
And its getting attention also in Washington, which maintains military bases in the UK and frequently avails of these Scottish havens. In a February essay in the influential Foreign Policy magazine, US defence analyst Robert L Goldich wrote: “Scottish independence may or may not be a good idea for Great Britain as it is currently constituted. But there are good reasons for us to think that it might not be too good for us.”
So, if Scotland and Britain divorce, who gets the “kids”, as Scottish wits like to describe this nuclear dilemma?
According to Professor Malcolm Chalmers of the Royal United Services Institute, a defence think tank, the critical issue is less the relocation of Faslane’s submarines but rather Coulport’s bristling nuclear arsenal. “The subs can mostly be sailed and re-berthed,” he says. “But the weaponry is extremely difficult, highly sensitive and most likely very controversial.”
If they had to go, where would they go?
Various sites have been canvassed to station Britain’s nuclear arsenal in England; Barrow-in-Furness on the Irish Sea, where the bulk of Britain’s submarines are constructed, and Devonport, Portland and Falmouth along England’s southern coast. Milford Haven in Wales by the Bristol Channel has also been mentioned.
But according to Britain’s Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), London’s Ministry of Defence had rejected these alternative sites previously, long before Scots started meaningfully pushing for independence. All come with some sort of oceanographic or topographic issue that the Western Scotland lochs don’t have, such as shallow waters and tricky tides. Barrow and Devonport are in the middle of major population centres, which discounts nuclear storage, while Falmouth and Portland are tourism playgrounds, the latter an Olympic yachting venue. Milford Haven is already one of Europe’s busiest oil and gas storage depots, potentially another nightmare scenario.
If Scots go their own way, an alternative plan is a deal between London and a pragmatic SNP, Scotland-as-Kazakhstan. That seems to have been discounted by SNP rhetoric, but analysts including Hassan believe it could provide the canny Salmond valuable “political wiggle room” when trading other crucial aspects of the divorce should the vote come to that.
Short of re-basing Britain’s submarine nuclear deterrent in Europe or even the US, the CND believes there is another way – the no nukes option.
It believes that if Scotland breaks away, it would bring a natural end to Britain’s nuclear power status in a post 9/11 world where warfare has changed. In a January paper entitled Trident: Nowhere to Go, CND analyst John Ainslie wrote “a government which had deep pockets and which placed nuclear weapons at the top of their agenda could, with enough political will and financial commitment, find some way to relocate Trident. However the economic and political realities of today mean that none of the alternatives are practical.”
AT THE other end of the Highlands, in the bucolic seaside village of Ullapool, Scotland’s independence dilemma is also being debated with vigour — in Gaelic. The view around the breakfast table at the local arts and debating house, The Ceilidh Place, is not one of gloom and what-if, but of the possible — an independent Scotland.
The Ceilidh Place — the word means “meeting” in Gaelic — is run by Jean Urquhart, SNP member of the Scottish Parliament for the Highlands and Islands, the entire northern reaches outside Scotland’s populated “central belt” conurbation.
If Scotland were Switzerland, Urquhart’s The Ceilidh Place — equally bar, bookshop, restaurant, gallery and debating chamber — in Ullapool might be its Davos, where Scotland’s big thinkers come several times a year to thrash around ideas. A few weeks later, Urquhart would host her biannual Changin’ Scotland gabfest, with three days of sessions and seminars debating the pro and anti cases for independence.
Thoughtful and mild-mannered, Urquhart is a committed independence supporter, she says, “for the simple reason that it just makes sense.
“We are sick of being patronised by the south,” she says. “The time has come.” Scots have batted independence notions around for centuries but what has thrilled her now, Urquhart says, has been a natural flowering of homegrown arts and culture that has risen alongside the independence push. That, she says, is “one of the many reasons why this time it’s different”.
It’s been helped in significant part by Urquhart herself. The weekend The Global Mail visited The Ceilidh Place, there was a celebration of Gaelic music and verse. The clientele was comprised not of grandmothers and great-uncles keeping the ancient rituals alive over Scotch and haggis as cliché might imagine it, but energetic 20 and 30-somethings with their future and Facebook pages staked in Scotland.
Urquhart cites the many schools that are offering tuition in Gaelic, and performing arts movements such as the Glasgow-based National Theatre of Scotland, an antidote to the state-sponsored Creative Scotland. There’s a renewed interest in writers including Alasdair Gray, widely hailed for his gritty portrait of Glasgow, Lanark, and upcoming heirs to Gray’s mantle, like Alan Bissett. “We have been colonised for centuries,” Bissett told The Global Mail. “That’s precisely what it is, it has to be said for what it is.”
Bissett brims with enthusiasm as he contemplates the buildup to the October 2014 referendum. “It’s great to be Scottish right now,” he says.
He says he’s looking forward to the next two years, as Scots thrash around the issues: How they’ll spend their North Sea oil royalties; who’ll be permitted to vote and what type of questions and future they’ll be voting for; the status of immigrants; what role will the Scots diaspora have in the referendum not just outside the UK but within it; what will happen to the BBC; will there be visas, border controls?
Bissett says it’s very exciting and very creative. “There’s no excuses any more, no more whinging that it’s all London’s fault,” he says.
“This is our moment, and London doesn’t get it.”