The UK government has dismissed a call from MPs to begin urgent contingency planning in case Scotland votes for independence, despite warnings that a yes vote would threaten the UK nuclear deterrent.
Ministers have “no mandate” to start preparing for a Scottish exit from the UK, the government said in response to a report by the commons defence committee which highlighted the difficulty of moving the nuclear deterrent south of the border.
The committee said in September that the UK government should quickly begin considering how it would respond to a yes vote in next September’s referendum on Scottish independence.
“We consider that, in the event of a ‘Yes’ vote, a safe transition of the nuclear deterrent from HM Naval Base Clyde [Faslane] could not be achieved quickly,” the committee said in its report.
The UK operates four Vanguard class submarines, each of which carries Trident II missiles tipped with nuclear warheads. The submarines operate from Faslane on the Clyde in west Scotland.
Scottish independence would put the UK's nuclear forces in a foreign country. The Scottish National party, which runs Scotland’s devolved government, has said it would want all nuclear weapons removed.
But in a response to the committee report that was published on Thursday, the UK government said it was not planning for a Scottish ‘Yes’ vote and could not pre-negotiate on independence.
“There is no democratic mandate for the UK government to do so: unless and until people in Scotland vote in the referendum to say that they wish to leave the United Kingdom, the UK government will continue to represent all parts of the United Kingdom,” the government said.
The defence committee had said that moving the Scottish submarine and missile bases “would take several years and many billions of pounds to deliver”.
The committee, all of whose members are from pro-union parties, said Scotland's security would also suffer if it chose independence. It said the newly independent state would have to close naval bases, shed thousands of jobs and lose almost its entire defence industry.
The naval requirements of a Scottish government “would barely provide enough work for a single yard,” and its defence industry would face a “difficult time”, the committee said.
“We believe defence companies in Scotland would be forced to rapidly reassess their business strategies, with the result that relocation of operations to the remainder of the UK would be an unwelcome but necessary decision,” it noted.
This would threaten many of Scotland’s 12,600 defence jobs, which help generate sales of more than £1.8bn each year.
The SNP has proposed a £2.5bn annual defence budget – 7 per cent of the UK’s spending.
The committee believes Scottish politicians will treat defence assets as integral to negotiations with the UK, and that ministers must prepare their position well in advance of the September vote.
One lever could be Scotland’s wish jointly to procure military equipment.
The committee said this made “absolute sense” for an independent Scotland, but that the benefits for the UK were “less clear cut”.
This month, Britain decided to end shipbuilding at the English yard of Portsmouth, shifting all its work to two Scottish yards along the Clyde. The decision was largely commercial – job losses were sought because of a lack of orders and Portsmouth is less able to build big ships.
But there were political noises at the time of the announcement – Whitehall warned Scotland that the UK would shift shipbuilding back south if it voted for independence.
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