Scotland's Independence Vote And The Fate Of Britain's Nuclear Subs

Aug 22, 2014
Originally published on September 2, 2014 4:24 am

After 300 years in the United Kingdom, Scotland votes next month on whether to break the union, which raises many questions. One is particularly meaningful in the town of Helensburgh, in Western Scotland: What will happen to the U.K.'s nuclear weapons?

The Trident submarine program is based in Scotland, at Faslane naval base.

From a hill just outside Helensburgh, you can gaze down on the base: a beehive of boats and cars humming along the inlet called Gare Loch. More than 6,000 people work there, making it Scotland's largest military facility. The perimeter is surrounded by razor wire.

The Scottish National Party, which is leading the movement to leave the U.K., has promised that an independent Scotland would be nuclear-free. England says it won't leave its nuclear arsenal in what would be a foreign country. So the fate of Faslane — and the community of Helensburgh — hangs largely on the Sept. 18 vote.

"It is a big factor," says Laura Edie, a nurse in town. "There's a lot of jobs that are connected to the community. My husband works for the base."

She's worried that her husband and his colleagues at the submarine base might lose their jobs if Scotland goes independent. But that's not enough to make her vote for unity.

"I'm voting 'yes.' So that's a contentious issue in the house," she says.

Is this a sign of hope, that "yes" voters can stay married to "no" voters? "Hopefully," she replies. "We'll see what happens."

The unity campaign has held a consistent lead in polls, and the leader of the independence camp, Alex Salmond, has described his side as "underdogs." People here in town say everything seems to be in limbo.

Stewart Noble has lived in Helensburgh for about 60 years. He's chairman of the local community heritage trust and treasurer of the town council. He says houses aren't selling like they used to. There was a rumor that naval officers were advised not to buy houses until after the referendum.

"This rumor is denied by the senior people at Faslane, but nevertheless," he says, "if that word is going round, whether it's true or not it may be causing house buyers to think."

Officials at Faslane declined a request to visit the naval base and interview a spokesman.

"We're really going into unknown territory here," says James de Waal of the Chatham House Royal Institute of International Affairs in London. He says the logistics of moving Britain's nuclear weapons out of Scotland would be almost overwhelming.

"It would take a lot of work, a lot of planning, a lot of money. It would be a big political issue as well," he says. "So it's not a simple thing. Building a new nuclear submarine facility in Britain would take a long time, and it would be very expensive."

The U.S. has expressed concern about the future of Faslane naval base. And it's all anyone is talking about in Helensburgh.

At Joe Callaghan's traditional family butcher shop on the main street, he sells haggis, black pudding and other Scottish treats from behind the counter in a bloodstained apron. Callaghan prefers the status quo.

"I get back to, 'We've had peace for 300 years here. Why do we want to upset the apple cart?' "

One of his regular customers, Pat McGinley, walks into the store. "I would vote 'yes' for independence," he says.

Suddenly, butcher Joe comes out from behind the counter, one hand raised high above his head. He's menacing his friend with a meat cleaver, as both men laugh. In the other hand, he has a gift of raw haggis sausages. Carrots and sticks in the debate over Scottish independence.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

In just over two weeks, people in Scotland will vote on whether to break away from the United Kingdom and become independent. The campaign over independence has raised a lot of questions. Nobody agrees if an independent Scotland would keep the pound or remain in the European Union or even keep using the BBC. And then there's the question of what would happen to the U.K.'s nuclear weapons, which are kept on submarines based in Scotland. NPR's Ari Shapiro paid a visit.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: I'm standing on a hillside in western Scotland overlooking a naval base called Faslane Naval Base. This is the largest military facility in Scotland. But there are real questions about what its future will be if Scotland goes independent. What will happen to the nuclear weapons that are housed here? And what'll happen to the more than 6,000 people who work on the base?

LAURA EDIE: It's a big factor. There's lots of jobs that are connected to the community. My husband works for the base.

SHAPIRO: Laura Edie is a nurse in the town of Helensburgh. She's worried that her husband and his colleagues at the submarine base might lose their jobs if Scotland goes independent. But that's not enough to make her vote for unity.

EDIE: I'm voting yes. So that's like a contentious issue in the house.

SHAPIRO: So yes-voters can stay married to no-voters?

EDIE: Hopefully. We'll see what haves.

SHAPIRO: The broad issue of nuclear weapons has been a big part of this campaign. Here in Helensburgh, it's personal. The Scottish National Party, which is leading the independence movements, wants a nuclear-free Scotland. And England says it won't leave the U.K.'s nuclear arsenal in what would be a foreign country. So the fate of Faslane Naval Base and the community of Helensburgh is yet another question mark leading into the vote here.

SHAPIRO: How are you?

STEWART NOBLE: Stewart Noble.

SHAPIRO: Very nice to meet you.

Stewart Noble has lived in Helensburgh for about 60 years. He's chairman of the local community heritage trust and treasurer of the town council. He says houses aren't selling like they used to. Everything seems to be in limbo.

NOBLE: There is a rumor which you may have heard, that the naval personnel officers who might've bought houses in the town have been advised not to do so until the referendum has taken place. This rumor is denied by the senior people at Faslane, but nevertheless if that word is going around, whether it's true or not, it may be causing house-buyers to think.

SHAPIRO: Officials at Faslane declined our request to visit the naval base and interview a spokesman.

JAMES DE WAAL: Well, we're really going into unknown territory here.

SHAPIRO: James de Waal is with the Chatham House Royal Institute for International Affairs in London. He says the logistics of moving Britain's nuclear weapons out of Scotland would be almost overwhelming.

DE WAAL: It would take a lot of work, a lot of planning, a lot of money. It would be a political - big political issue as well. So it's not a simple thing. Building a new nuclear submarine facility in Britain would take a long time, and it would be very expensive.

SHAPIRO: The U.S. has expressed concern about the future of Faslane Naval Base, and it's all anyone's talking about in Helensburgh.

Joe Callaghan runs a traditional family butcher shop on the main street. In his bloodstained, white apron he sells haggis, black pudding and other Scottish treats.

JOE CALLAGHAN: And again I get back to the - we've had peace for 300 years (laughter). Why do we want to upset the apple cart?

SHAPIRO: One of his regular customers walks into the store, Pat McGinley.

PAT MCGINLEY: I would vote yes for independence.

SHAPIRO: Suddenly butcher Joe comes out from behind the counter, one hand raised high above his head.

MCGINLEY: (Laughter).

SHAPIRO: He's coming out with a meat cleaver.

He's menacing his friend with a meat cleaver. In the other hand, he has a gift of raw haggis sausages. Carrots and sticks in the debate over Scottish independence. Ari Shapiro, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.