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MP for Edinburgh North and Leith
MP for Edinburgh North and Leith

A world free of monstrous weapons


The National Museum of Scotland is launching a free exhibition this summer highlighting the country’s front-line role in the Cold War and exploring its ‘visible and invisible legacies’. Cold War Scotland will bring together nearly 200 objects and tell the stories of Scots whose lives and communities were shaped by the advent of atomic power and the lingering threat of attack or nuclear disaster.

The exhibition will also shine a light on Scotland’s rich and proud history of Cold War-era activism and resistance. This began in the early 1960s with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament’s protests and civil disobedience against the arrival of US nuclear submarines, armed with Polaris missiles, in the Holy Loch near Dunoon. Operations at the base were disrupted by marches, sit-ins, and blockades, as thousands spoke out against the weapons and what they saw as a threat to peace and a violation of Scottish sovereignty.

I’ll be interested to see if the Ding Dong Dollar songwriting project features in the exhibition. Music was at the core of anti-Polaris activism, with the movement giving rise to over fifty protest songs. These combined folk and popular melodies with sharp lyrics, like the chorus, “Ye canny spend a dollar when ye’re deid,” from the movement’s eponymous anthem.

This anti-nuclear tradition should inspire and motivate us today, with the UK’s weapons programme recently coming under renewed scrutiny.

It emerged in December that Rishi Sunak, clearly desperate and void of ideas, tried to strike a secret deal with Dominic Cummings to spearhead the Tories’ upcoming election strategy. No agreement was reached, but Cummings said one of his conditions was a guarantee to address “the scandal of nuclear weapons infrastructure” which is “rotting”, “a dangerous disaster”, and a “budget nightmare of hard-to-believe and highly classified proportions”, with “tens of billions secretly in the hole”.

Dangerous and rotting are not words you want to hear associated with one of the world’s deadliest nuclear arsenals, lying just 30 miles from Glasgow.

Cummings, for all his faults, has been at the very heart of government and seen ‘under the bonnet’ of the Ministry of Defence (MoD). His comments should be taken very seriously. They also confirm and vindicate long-held concerns many of us voiced repeatedly. The SNP is pushing for the UK Government to make an urgent statement on whether people living near nuclear bases in Scotland remain safe.

We already know that the Vanguard class nuclear submarines are in poor condition, with only three out of the four currently operational. In 2022, the ageing fleet nearly led to ‘the worst Royal Navy disaster since World War Two’, according to the UK Defence Journal.

I’ve been on the MoD’s case about these issues for years, pressing for answers on the dumping of weapons and radioactive waste, and declining safety at its nuclear bases on the Clyde. In 2022, the number of nuclear safety incidents at Faslane and Coulport leapt by a third. And the number of the more significant category B and C incidents exceeded the total for the previous three years combined.

Part of the problem is we don’t know exactly what these categories mean. The MoD won’t provide any detail of individual incidents, stating they could include “equipment failures, human error, procedural failings, documentation shortcoming or near-misses.”

We have a right to know the nature of these incidents. What are the effects of these safety lapses on the people who work at the bases, those living nearby or on the environment? It shouldn’t take the digging of individual MPs or journalists to get piecemeal bits of information from the MoD; the public deserves transparency.

As long as there are nuclear warheads in our waters I’ll keep asking questions, but ultimately I want to see a Scotland and a world free of these monstrous weapons. Depressingly though, both the Tories and Labour support their renewal.

Replacing Trident will cost hundreds of billions of pounds, money which would be far better used to tackle the cost of living crisis, lift people out of poverty and address the biggest security threat we face, the climate emergency.

We could shift to life-affirming investments in our people, our renewables potential, our health and education systems, our social security, our infrastructure, our research and development, and so much more.

The concerns raised by the anti-Polaris activists in the Cold War era were prescient and remain deeply relevant today. Perhaps the most famous song to come out of the movement is Hamish Henderson’s anti-war, anti-imperialist, Freedom Come All Ye.

Henderson described his iconic anthem as “expressing my hopes for Scotland, and for the survival of humanity on this beleaguered planet.”

His words resonate as strongly today as when he wrote the song 64 years ago. ■

Twitter: @DeidreBrock

Faslane Peace Camp. Photograph: Ben Allison


The concerns of the anti-Polaris activists were prescient and remain deeply relevant today


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