The US Embassy in London dismissed Scottish Government plans to get rid of Trident after independence, according to secret cables published by The Ferret.
Diplomatic reports to State Department officials in Washington in the run-up to the independence referendum in September 2014 cast doubt on the SNP government’s promise to ban nuclear weapons – and betray US anxieties about the fate of Trident in an independent Scotland.
The cables, just declassified under US freedom of information law, label SNP nuclear policy as “rhetoric” and “a marquee issue”. An anti-Trident motion in the Scottish Parliament is described as “largely symbolic” and “a campaign tactic”.
This has prompted an angry respond from Alex Salmond, who was First Minister at the time. “The Scottish Government of 2014 stood full square for the removal of Trident submarines from Scottish waters as laid out in the White Paper on independence,” he said.
“Any US Embassy analyst doubting that intent knows or understands nothing about the history of the SNP or the independence movement in Scotland.”
The independence White Paper promised to “make early agreement on the speediest safe removal of nuclear weapons a priority”. This was “with a view to the removal of Trident within the first term of the Scottish Parliament following independence.”
But the plans were disparaged by US diplomats. One US Embassy cable from London to Washington on 17 June 2014 recounted reports that the then Deputy First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, was proposing a draft Scottish constitution including a bar on nuclear weapons.
“The SNP’s anti-nuclear rhetoric has only increased during the independence campaign, including assertions that the SNP would not budge on Trident removal as part of post-referendum negotiations with the rest of the UK,” the cable said.
“However, actual written materials, including the White Paper and draft independence bill leave some room to manoeuvre, committing the government to negotiate on removal.”
The cable added: “The SNP’s proposal for a nuclear ban in a permanent constitution is a marker laid down in the campaign, but likely would be up for renegotiation in the event the referendum passes.”
An Embassy cable on 7 August 2014 reported the Scottish Parliament passing a motion calling for the removal of Trident from Scotland. “With only six weeks until the referendum, this largely symbolic motion – regarded by many as a campaign tactic by the pro-independence camp – underscored the Scottish Government’s strong anti-nuclear stance,” it said.
The SNP’s proposal for a nuclear ban likely would be up for renegotiation in the event the referendum passes. US Embassy
“The removal of Trident remains a key part of the pro-independence campaign, with the Scottish Government calling the nuclear programme wasteful and morally wrong. When setting terms for Trident’s removal in writing, however, the Scottish Government continues to include a hedge on timing.”
Another cable on 16 April 2014 reported former UK defence chiefs saying that removing Trident from Scotland would “cast a dark shadow” over its relationship with allies. This “will put pressure on the SNP to justify its claims that Trident could be removed from an independent Scotland by 2020, an assertion questioned by several defence experts,” it commented.
In a cable on 11 June 2014 the US Embassy reported claims in the British press that the US would block an independent Scotland from joining NATO if it “followed through” on plans to remove Trident. “The removal of nuclear weapons is a marquee issue for the SNP in the independence debate,” it said.
A cable on 6 June 2014 referred to press coverage highlighting concern in the Obama administration about the impact of Scottish independence “and the loss of Trident nuclear submarines on the Clyde”. This could pose a “significant challenge” to Salmond, it reported, “due to the President’s influence on centre-left public opinion.”
Paper copies of the cables, marked “secret” and “confidential”, were released by the US State Department earlier this month, more than two years after they were first requested. One document was withheld “in the interest of national defence or foreign policy”.
The cables have been scanned and published today by The Ferret.
The US Embassy cables
Ross Greer MSP, external affairs spokesperson for the Scottish Greens, argued that if Scotland had voted yes in 2014 this would have given the government a clear mandate to remove Trident as quickly as possible. “It is simply inconceivable that any government could back down on Trident renewal without causing outrage and revolt amongst its own backbenches, the Yes movement and the Scottish public as a whole,” he said.
“The US State Department can think wishfully that an independent Scotland would cow to their wishes but the independence Greens have always campaigned for and the independence we believe most people want is one where Scotland is not a base of convenience for American weapons of mass annihilation.”
According to the Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the released memos showed that Washington was seriously concerned about the implications of Scottish independence for Trident. “The US Embassy was trying to downplay the impact of independence by describing the SNP’s anti-nuclear stance as rhetoric and the Scottish Parliament’s vote against Trident as a campaign tactic,” argued campaign coordinator John Ainslie.
“However, it would be very difficult for the SNP to suddenly reverse their policy. Since 2014 Scots have overwhelmingly voted for anti-Trident candidates in the 2015 and 2016 elections.”
The US Embassy in London stressed that the US position on Trident was well known and had not changed. “The United States remains steadfastly committed to the security and defence of our NATO partners, including the United Kingdom, and to maintaining a strong transatlantic relationship in support of our common defence,” said an Embassy spokeswoman.
“We welcome the UK’s continued commitment to security, including its two per cent GDP commitment on defence spending and Parliament’s 472-117 vote to renew Trident last month. These commitments reinforce the UK’s strong role as a NATO ally and contributor to NATO’s nuclear deterrent.”
A version of this article was published in the Sunday Herald on 21 August 2016.