Scotland and the Global Disarmament Movement

Dr Nick Ritchie, University of York, May 2021

Scotland has an important role to play in the global nuclear disarmament movement in two ways: 1) by reinforcing the web of international norms and law that constrains and delegitimises nuclear weapons; 2) by challenging the nuclear weapons practices and ideology of the British state.

Reinforcing nuclear disarmament

Westminster parties and politicians that support the UK’s nuclear weapons often frame the very idea of getting rid of them as naïve, dangerous and a form of national emasculation. The SNP’s position on nuclear disarmament, which reflects the view across Scotland, is routinely derided as outside the mainstream. And yet it is not. In fact the opposite is true.

In 2017 the Treaty of the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) was adopted at the UN by 122 states. In 2015 at the UN General Assembly 139 states voted in favour of a ‘humanitarian pledge’ to “stigmatise, prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons”. 115 states are members of nuclear weapon-free zones that prohibit nuclear weapons. Across swathes of the global South and areas of Europe, states have long rejected the legitimacy and necessity of nuclear weapons, including many states that have the capacity to build them. Moreover, public opinion polls routinely show majorities in support of eliminating nuclear weapons, including across Europe. The movement in Scotland that refuses to accept UK nuclear weapons is fully in step with a global movement of governments, people, religious organisations, parliamentarians, and trades unions that reject nuclear weapons and a system of security based on the threat of catastrophic nuclear violence. 

Furthermore, the direction of travel is towards ever tighter normative and legal restrictions on nuclear weapons and elimination. Two other ‘weapons of mass destruction’ – chemical and biological weapons – have been eliminated through global conventions: the 1972 Biological and Toxins Weapons Convention and the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention. Nuclear weapons are subject to a global norm of non-proliferation through the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, regional prohibition in the nuclear weapon-free zones, a ban on nuclear testing through the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT); a norm against the first use of nuclear weapons (often referred to as a ‘nuclear taboo’), and International Humanitarian Law that prohibits all means and methods of warfare, such as nuclear warfare, that cannot discriminate between those taking part in the fighting and those, such as civilians, who are not, that cause unnecessary suffering, and that cause severe or long-term damage to the environment. In addition, there is a universally accepted goal of nuclear disarmament that the nuclear weapon states, including the UK, still claim to support. This is was first formulated when the United Nations General Assembly on 24 January 1946 adopted its first-ever resolution, calling for the “elimination from national armaments of atomic weapons”. So a web of norms, laws, restraints and obligations affecting nuclear weapons has developed since 1945. This web developed because of a deep and abiding concern about the omnicidal possibilities of nuclear war and a widespread acknowledgment that nuclear weapons must be subjected to extensive controls up to and including their elimination. Scotland’s support for nuclear disarmament is part of this global web and an important contribution to it.

An independent Scotland committed to nuclear disarmament would be able to go further and join the ranks of ‘disarmament advocacy states’ that have driven disarmament diplomacy. These have been defined as “often small- or middle-sized nations, sometimes known as ‘Middle Powers’” that have “been instrumental in stimulating a strong civil society sector, ranging from mass-appeal nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to think tanks and academic institutions supportive of the elimination of nuclear weapons”. They include states like Austria, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, Norway, Switzerland and South Africa, Thailand, Egypt and Malaysia. An independent Scotland would therefore find support in Europe for its work on nuclear disarmament from its close neighbour, Ireland, as well as Switzerland and Austria. But it would also find support from – and through its disarmament advocacy lend support to – governments, political parties, and publics in other European states, including NATO states, that are opposed to nuclear weapons, for example in Norway, Sweden, Belgium, Germany, Spain, the Netherlands, and Iceland.

Challenging the British nuclear state

The UK government plans to operate the next generation of Dreadnought nuclear-armed submarines from Faslane until the 2060s or 2070s. This brings with it a set of nuclear risks for Scotland. These include risks of serious accident resulting in explosions and/or radiation release involving nuclear warhead transportation convoys, nuclear submarine reactors, Trident missile bodies, and nuclear warheads. The UK Ministry of Defence places the highest priority on the safety and security of its warheads, missiles and reactors, but there is a worrisome historical record of accidents involving nuclear weapon systems and delivery vehicles in peacetime and, more alarmingly still, during international crises.  

The Scottish Government can continue to use devolved powers, for example around transportation, civil contingencies and environmental protection, to challenge the legitimacy and necessity of living with this set of nuclear risks, unwillingly, for perhaps the next half century on current UK plans. 

Moreover, the SNP and the Scottish Government can challenge the ideology of nuclear weapons that is alive and well in parts of Westminster. It can do so by highlighting the dangers of practising nuclear deterrence, the irrelevance of nuclear threats to today’s transnational security challenges, not least the climate crisis, and the unacceptable humanitarian consequences of nuclear violence. It can do this by continuing to set out an inclusive national narrative based on a positive vision of Scotland in which nuclear weapons have no place. This frames Scotland as a small but effective internationalist power, one that is committed to peace, conflict resolution, development aid and disarmament: a “committed and active participant in the global community,” in the words of the Scottish government’s 2013 white paper on Scottish independence. It is a narrative that has invoked Norway, Finland, New Zealand, Sweden, and Switzerland as examples of states of comparable size and status that have made a sustained and significant contribution to conflict resolution, peace, reconciliation, and diplomacy – some of which are important disarmament advocacy states. It stands in contrast to commitments by Westminster political parties to retain nuclear weapons for the long-term as national security assets rather than liabilities.

An independent Scotland would be in a position to negotiate the removal of the UK nuclear weapons complex from Scotland. In doing so, it would raise very difficult questions about the cost and necessity of reproducing facilities for nuclear-armed submarines and nuclear warhead outside of Scotland. This would prompt a very serious debate in the remainder of the United Kingdom that could lead to a groundswell of support in favour of terminating the UK’s dependence on nuclear weapons altogether.

In summary: Scotland has an important role to play in the global nuclear disarmament movement. It can reinforce and advance the norms and laws that restrain and prohibit nuclear weapons and nuclear violence as part of a global enterprise in common cause with the vast majority of states and peoples. It can challenge the legitimacy of UK nuclear weapons practices in Scotland and Westminster narratives that insist nuclear weapons are necessary and legitimate. As an independent state, Scotland could join the ranks of the disarmament advocacy states, support the delegitimisation and stigmatisation of nuclear weapons in Europe, and prompt a profound rethinking of nuclear weapons in the remainder of the UK. For these reasons, Scotland – its government, people and institutions – should continue embrace its contribution to global nuclear disarmament with confidence.

Dr. Nick Ritchie researches and teaches in the areas of international relations and international security at the University of York. His particular focus is on nuclear disarmament, proliferation and arms control and US and UK national security. After completing his PhD thesis at the University of Bradford in 2007 on the evolution of US nuclear weapons policy after the Cold War, Nick spent four years researching and teaching at Bradford’s Department of Peace Studies before joining York in 2011. He previously worked for five years at the Oxford Research Group, an independent Non-Governmental Organisation working with policy-makers and independent experts on the challenges of global security and nuclear disarmament.

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