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Do These Picturesque Scottish Towns Need Nuclear Submarines to Survive?

The economy of towns and villages around the Faslane nuclear base rely on weapons of mass destruction that could kill us all.

Helensburgh (Photo author's own). Homepage thumbnail by Bodger Brooks

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

If you've ever seen 1973 classic The Wicker Man (and I don't mean the terrible Nick Cage remake), you'll be familiar with the idea of isolated Scottish communities and their weird ways. In the west coast town of Helensburgh—which, while 25 miles from Glasgow, is not exactly remote—inhabitants worship submarines. That seems to be the only logical explanation for why they've recently been knocking down a church wall so that they can stick an actual submarine inside. And who wouldn't worship a shiny underwater prophet that brings jobs, security, and economic well-being to all those who cross its path?


In fact, they're just building Scotland's first museum dedicated to the history of underwater warfare, with a World War II "midget submarine" as the star attraction, and they need to get it inside somehow. It hasn't arrived yet, so there's currently just an old church with a hole in its wall.

But submarine warfare isn't just of historical interest in these parts. Modern submarines are based a few miles to the north of Helensburgh in the deep sea lochs that cut across Scotland's west coast. Much to the annoyance of hippies, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, and the fairly significant proportion of the country who find the notion of mutually assured destruction in some way objectionable, the subs based there are stacked full of nuclear weapons. This is the home of Trident, Britain's nuclear deterrent.

The subs patrolling the depths are arguably relics of the Cold War. Saying that, each one does possess the firepower to send humanity back considerably further (some time around the Stone Age would be a good estimate). The system involves two subs covertly prowling the depths of the ocean, primed to retaliate in the event of a nuclear strike on the UK or its allies, while the other two are dockside undergoing maintenance. This neat arrangement is pending a £167 billion [$233 billion] replacement in a few years. But that's up for debate: For the first time in about 30 years, the leader of the Labour Party is against their existence. The question is, would the area be able to survive without them?


This quiet area of coastline is the number one target for any superpower, rogue state, or terrorist cabal intent on wiping out the UK's military capacity. Not that there was much sign of impending nuclear apocalypse along Helensburgh's wind battered seafront on a rainy Sunday. Nor was there much sign of anything, in fact, with most of the town's residents preferring to shelter inside the quaint Italian delis and cozy, military-themed pubs that line the seafront.

Each day, hundreds make the commute from here and towns across the region to Faslane and its sister site of Coulport. The base is reputed to be the largest single-site employer in Scotland, with its current level of 6,900 workers set to exceed 8,000 by 2022. A few decades ago, figures like that were the norm for workplaces, but in a country that has lost virtually all of its major industry, it makes the naval base unique. Even Amazon, with its hundreds of warehouse jobs just across the water in Greenock, barely registers against it. What's more, the jobs serving Britain's submarine fleet are highly skilled, unionized, well paid, and secure.

There's a confidence about Helensburgh that marks it out from the depressed, post-industrial malaise that envelopes much of central Scotland. Its affluence is visible; not many of Scotland's seaside towns of 15,000 or so can boast a Waitrose and a private school. Given the area has done this well out of weapons of mass destruction, it follows that local politicians effectively worship at death's altar. Its MSP, Jackie Baillie, is the only Scottish Labour MSP that defied the party's anti-Trident position in a Holyrood vote last year.


"I argued strongly in support of the base and the thousands of jobs it provides for local people, as I have always done, and I will not be changing my position," she told a local paper at the time. "I will put my constituents ahead of my party, and reality ahead of rhetoric."

But given both the reality and rhetoric of Scottish Labour's prospects, the forthcoming Scottish elections do not, to put it mildly, look great. Baillie is facing an uphill struggle to save the seat she's held since 1999. Her likely successor is the SNP's Gail Robertson, an opponent of Trident and a member of the Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Does she want to see the base packed up tomorrow and its 7,000 workers lining up at their nearest employment office?

"To suggest the removal of Trident would have negative consequences for the local economy would be to say that all of the employment at the base is directly related to Trident, which is far from being the case," Robertson told VICE. "In fact, the cost of renewing Trident comes at the expense of spending on conventional defense and conventional manufacturing jobs. Investment in more conventional defense based at Faslane would be far more beneficial to the local economy."

And it's not lost on the SNP that this apparently Trident-reliant area was one of only four to vote "Yes" in the 2014 independence referendum.

The issue of exactly how many workers rely on the UK's nuclear weapons program is hotly contested, with supporters estimating anything up to 11,000 jobs. However, in response to a Freedom of Information request in 2012, the MOD quoted 520 jobs as being directly reliant on the Trident program. For its part, the SNP has been insistent that the removal of nukes, or even independence, would not entail the mass job losses envisioned by Trident's proponents. Local representatives are keen to sweet talk the "base vote," with new MP Brendan O'Hara writing recently that the navy is "very much at the heart" of the local community.

The Trade Union Center and Sottish Trades Union Congress are against renewal, but local trade unionists think differently. Jim Moohan is a senior organizer with the GMB, which represent workers on the base. "It's been there for over 50 years, and thousands upon thousands of jobs are at the site. Taking away the main source of income in the area would leave the place desolate," he said. "The contractors have no intension of diversification to other types of job."

The question may be fairly moot. Despite a large demonstration against Trident in London on Saturday, a combination of a Conservative majority and dissenting Labour MPs will almost certainly ensure that the program is renewed when it comes up over the next couple of years. In Helensburgh and surrounding towns, a community will continue to flourish thanks to the weapons that could destroy us all.

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