Britain vs Scotland: The Geopolitics of Nuclear Armament

Tristan Beck
March 8, 2017

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2017


Fig. 1: Nuclear submarine HMS Vanguard arrives back at HM Naval Base Clyde, Faslane, Scotland following a patrol. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Since the development and use of the Atomic Bomb in 1945, the international world has been defined by one distinction: countries who have nuclear capabilities, and countries who don't. As nuclear development progressed, there became an increasing focus on countries completing the nuclear triad, which is composed of nuclear bombs, nuclear capable ballistic missiles, and submarine-launch missiles. By the late 1980's and early 1990's, much of the nuclear research worldwide had progressed to focus mainly on the submarine based missiles. When the Trident missile class was developed in the 1990's, the United Kingdom devoted the entirety of its resources to creating a fleet of nuclear submarines. [1]

United Kingdom Nuclear Policy

To this day, the United Kingdom's nuclear arsenal exists solely as four submarines which carry Trident Missiles, with at least one submarine on patrol at all times. This ideology has evolved over several decades. The current arrangement of submarine- based missiles was derived from a deal made with the United States in 1962 in which President Kennedy sold the Polaris submarine- launch missile system. [2] From that point on, the UK nuclear program has revolved solely around submarine warfare. When a submarine is not on patrol, it is docked at Her Majesty's Naval Base Clyde (HMNB Clyde), commonly referred to as Faslane, which is located on the western shore of Scotland, as seen in Fig. 1. The base Clyde is used to store, train, and repair the subs, while the missiles and warheads of the Trident Deterrent Missile System are stored locally in the Depot at Coalport. [3]

Scottish Tension

In recent years, members of the Scottish parliament have made motions towards leaving the United Kingdom to recreate a unified Scotland, and the decision was set to be voted on in 2014. In interviews, several Scottish ranking ministers made comments regarding the event that if Scotland decides to withdraw from the United Kingdom, they would plan to have the British nuclear submarine fleet removed from Scotland. [4] As the idea spread that the British fleet would potentially have to relocate, immediate concerns were raised about the exorbitant costs and lack of geographical options for base relocation. When the referendum to leave the United Kingdom came to the ballot, it did not get sufficient votes, resulting in Scotland remaining in the United Kingdom; however, the conversation started around Scotland's disdain for the nuclear arsenal had already been set into motion. Despite the ongoing complaints from Scottish politicians, the British government has not elaborated any plans to move the fleet, or any plans to construct new amenities to house the Trident Fleet elsewhere in the British Isles. [5]

© Tristan Beck. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] A. Goldberg, "The Atomic Origins of the British Nuclear Deterrent," Int. Aff. 40, 409 (1964).

[2] A. Dobson, "The Years of Transition: Anglo-American Relations 1961-1967," Rev. Int. Stud. 16, 239 (1990).

[3] L. Freedman, Britain and Nuclear Weapons (Palgrave Macmillan, 1980).

[4] D. Torrance, The Battle for Britain: Scotland and the Independence Referendum (Biteback Publishing, 2013).

[5] A. Heath et al., "British National Sentiment," Brit. J. Polit. Sci. 29, 155 (1999).