In Scottish Navy Town, Locals Like the U.K. Just Fine

It’s hard to find a supporter of independence in 'the most No-voting region in Scotland.' Maybe the nuclear submarine base has something to do with it.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Faslane naval base.
Faslane naval base.Credit: AFP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

GARELOCHHEAD, Scotland – By the winding road leading down to Gare Loch, a small inlet on Scotland’s western shore, there's an uncharacteristic sight for this country: tall wire fences, guard towers, closed-circuit cameras and men in uniform carrying automatic weapons. Welcome to Faslane, the largest deepwater port in the British Isles and the only one serving the Royal Navy’s submarines, including the four Trident nuclear missile launchers.

Since 1998, when Britain cut its airborne nuclear capabilities, the Tridents have been the country’s only nuclear platform. Britain’s military strategy is still centered around the nuclear deterrent, and since 1968, a Faslane-based submarine has always been on alert at sea, ready for a first or second strike should total war break out in Europe.

Nuclear bunkers are dug into the green hills above the loch, where the warheads are kept. The naval base is constantly upgraded and expanded; it pours into the Scottish economy tens of millions of pounds annually and supplies around 10,000 jobs in the region. On Thursday, if the Scots vote for independence, Britain will be forced to move the subs and warheads, but it’s not clear where.

Scots refer to the villages and towns around Faslane as the “most No-voting region in Scotland.” Locals here are expected to vote overwhelmingly for Scotland remaining in the United Kingdom – for them it’s not just about keeping the nuclear deterrent, it’s their families’ livelihood.

“I’ve been a Scot and a Briton for 41 years,” says Tracey McCullough, a cook at a restaurant in Garelochhead, a village next to the base. “I am proud of both my identities and I believe in a nuclear deterrent — there are a lot of nutcases out there.”

In Scotland’s cities, left-wing movements call for nuclear disarmament and a withdrawal from NATO. In the more rural areas there is greater pride in Scotland’s military traditions as part of the United Kingdom.

“Both my grandfathers fought in the world wars” say McCullough. “My ex-husband served on nuclear submarines for 20 years, and he didn’t grow a second head. I am proud of them and don’t understand people who live in the cities coming here and demanding to remove the base. It will be a disaster for us who live here.”

As Stuart McQueen, landlord of the local pub, puts it, “Seventy-five percent of the economy of this area is derived from the base. It’s not just the sailors and officers on the base. There are people working for building contractors. The bed-and-breakfasts, hotels, restaurants and catering companies won’t survive without it. Even the tourism here is based on families of those serving on the base who visit here.”

But the villagers insist their opposition to independence isn’t just linked to the base.

“This village existed before the base,” says Sean Tracey, a retired builder who helped put up the base. “The Scottish National Party has no Plan B if their plans don’t work — no plan to protect our pensions or currency, no idea what will happen if the North Sea oil runs out. It’s all for the glorification of [SNP Leader] Alex Salmond and a group of people with romantic dreams who watched ‘Braveheart’ once too many.”

From King David to Dimona

On every lamppost on Garelochhead’s main street there is a Yes pro-independence poster. “Whoever put them there isn’t from here,” says Tracey. “It’s somebody from outside who wants to rub our faces in it.”

At the mouth of the loch is the town of Helensburgh; its neat houses and gardens attest to the prosperity brought by the naval base. It’s hard to find independence supporters here, but there is a small group of diehards.

“We’re not exactly popular here,” smiles Alexander Morris, a gardener and Yes campaign activist. “I keep reminding my neighbors that we weren’t always a navy town. People lived here 150 years before they built the base in the Second World War and we prospered then.

“The town’s business community clings to the old mono-industrial ideas and thinks we need the submarines to survive, instead of understanding there is great potential in shipping and renewable energy here. They have to realize that nuclear weapons are not relevant any longer in the 21st century, just like King David’s slingshot and the textile factory in Dimona. Scotland will be independent, get rid of nuclear weapons and prosper.”

A friend of Morris, Helensburgh firefighter Alistair Swanson, has a similar view.

“It’s all part of London’s Project Fear,” he says. “You can’t take a walk in the hills around here without coordinating it; the guards can shoot at you if they think you want to get into the bunkers. It creates bad feeling among the people here, and there are more independence supporters than many think. They don’t want to talk because of all those who live off the base.”

The SNP’s leaders have promised Scottish voters that if they win, they will demand that London remove the submarines and warheads. Officially, they are not prepared to discuss the base’s lease. “Anti-nuclear feeling is ingrained in Scotland,” says Morris. “There is no way the SNP could sell a deal with London; people won’t accept it.”

Despite that, Salmond has also promised voters that an independent Scotland would remain a NATO member. It’s unclear, though, how his government would square its membership based on a first-strike nuclear strategy with limiting NATO’s nuclear umbrella. This is just one issue the Scottish nationalists have failed to fully address; others include whether an independent Scotland would remain in the European Union, and what currency it would use.

But the future of the Faslane base also puts into question Britain’s international standing if it becomes the United Kingdom without Scotland. It hasn’t been an empire for over half a century, but its nuclear weapons have made it a member of an exclusive club.

The Ministry of Defence will find it hard to build a new submarine base in the timetable the SNP is threatening to dictate, and the billions of pounds for relocation could lead to a wider debate in Britain over nuclear disarmament. Scottish independence would not only chop off a third of Britain’s territory, it could also severely diminish its stature around the world.

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