It was a sunny but cold morning as I drove down Gare Loch in Scotland last week towards the town of Helensburgh. I was on my way to visit the Peace Camp at Faslane where the UK’s so-called independent nuclear submarine fleet is based.
Britain’s nuclear armoury, which is actually part of a NATO force largely under the control of the US, has suddenly rocketed to the top of the political agenda with the arrival on the national scene of the Scottish National Party’s leader Nicola Sturgeon. Sturgeon’s success in debating with the six other main UK party leaders on British television, the SNP’s challenge against Labour in Scotland and the state of the polls nationally mean that the prospect of a possible anti-Conservative majority in Westminster in the May 7 general election is putting Trident squarely in the centre of the election campaign.
There were signs of spring along Gare Loch, just north of the Firth of Clyde near Glasgow but the distant mountains were covered with snow after a week of unseasonally bitter weather. At the Peace Camp, a small group were stoking a wood-burning stove to make tea as the welcome sunlight filtered through the still leafless trees.
Faslane Peace Camp has occupied a site near HM Naval Base, Clyde, for thirty two years. A collection of brightly painted caravans and buses linked by pathways, little gardens and communal shelters where talks on non-violent direct action are given is tucked in amongst trees on a narrow strip of publicly owned land alongside the main road leading to the base. The loch sparkles in the sunlight a few yards away – there are occasional protests by kayakers who take to the water to augment the regular blockades of the gates of the base.
With the UK election only weeks away, anti-Trident actions are increasing. Thousands attended a demonstration and rally in Glasgow on April 4 and the next major blockade at Faslane itself is planned for April 13. .
Until Conservative Defence Minister Michael Fallon’s article in the Times newspaper on April 9 making a personal attack on Labour leader Ed Miliband over Trident, the issue of nuclear arms had largely gone unremarked in the rest of the UK. But in Scotland it has been a major plank of the SNP’s programme and played an important part in the independence referendum last September. There is a strong correlation between support for independence and getting rid of Trident. When Scotland voted 55%/45% against independence, Faslane Peace Camp became a rallying point for disappointed ‘yes’ voters. ‘Lots of people came to the camp. They were very upset,’ said Michael, 26, who lives locally and visits often. Elaine, a camp resident, told me: ‘There’s a strong link between voting for independence and getting rid of Trident. Coming to the camp for a lot of people was like saying “It’s not over”.’
Michael Fallon’s intervention has ensured that for the first time in many years the issue of unilateral nuclear disarmament is a significant issue in a UK General Election. It is a rare moment. When Labour formed the government after the 1964 election with a majority of just four seats, unilateral disarmament had strong support within the party but Prime Minister Harold Wilson ignored it. Fifty years later, in 2015, the SNP is committed to scrapping the UK’s fleet of submarines armed with nuclear warheads, while Labour is pledged to renewing the fleet, although many Labour voters and election candidates are opposed. A decision on the scope of the replacement has to be taken by Parliament next year.
Fallon said Miliband was a ‘backstabber’ who would sacrifice Trident for SNP support. The attack is more to do with the possibility of a broader anti-Tory deal on economic and social policies between Labour and the SNP after May 7 than the parties’ stated positions on Trident, or the likelihood of an actual coalition government between the two. Both Labour and the SNP have said replacement and scrapping of Trident respectively are ‘red-lines’ for them at Westminster, and Ed Miliband has ruled out a coalition. But there is plenty of room for deal-making on other policies in the case of a hung parliament. In an interview in March, Sturgeon implied that her party’s support for certain other Labour policies in government would not hinge on a deal on Trident.
The SNP’s encroachments into Labour’s social justice territory have fuelled their support in Scotland as the Tory-led coalition government’s public spending cuts have deepened. But in this UK-wide election it is Nicola Sturgeon’s strategic anti-austerity message to Scotland’s anti-independence voters and voters outside Scotland that is of real interest. At every opportunity Sturgeon links the savings of up to £100bn from scrapping Trident to alleviating child poverty. The April 4 demonstration in Glasgow was held under the banner ‘Bairns (children) Not Bombs’ and Sturgeon’s script for the various televised leaders’ debates includes the line that Tory, Labour and Liberal Democrat plans for more spending cuts will mean a million more children living in poverty by 2020.
Sturgeon’s tactic is squarely in the tradition of the women’s peace movement, led by the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), of seeing disarmament holistically, linking peace work to the broader social aims of justice and equality. WILPF, founded in 1915 in an attempt to stop the First World War, is convening a Congress of members in The Hague, April 22-23, to debate and agree its new manifesto for the 21st century, renewing its call for, amongst other things, multilateral nuclear disarmament. The Congress is followed, April 27-29, by a major international civil society conference under the banner Women’s Power to Stop War, attended by 1,000 women from around the world. Sturgeon and the SNP’s stance may well be welcome there, but an independent Scotland’s unilateralism, while it continues to be interested in membership of NATO, may raise some eyebrows.
The rapidly changing politics of Scotland and the impact in the UK more widely are giving fresh momentum to peace campaigners. Sturgeon is not even a candidate to become a member of the UK Parliament but this is undoubtedly a critical moment in the long history of nuclear disarmament and women’s critical voice in the debate. For a woman to actually be within reach of exercising power in the furtherance of even limited anti-war goals, however constrained or contradictory her position might be, is remarkable.
Marion Bowman will be reporting from the International Women's League for Peace and Freedom's centenary Congress and Conference in the Hague, April 22-29. Read more articles addressing Women's Power to Stop War on openDemocracy 50.50
Read 50.50's collection of articles on Towards nuclear non-proliferation