HMS Superb sails by Gibraltar, May 1993
For the last twelve months or so, there has been a flurry of press commentary and curt MOD statements regarding the future of Britain’s nuclear deterrent (and this has attracted a great deal of international observation as well), or more exactly where it might be housed in the context of uncertainty about what a SNP-led independent Scotland might have done and might yet do (if and when there for example a second referendum in the years to come). The SNP is on record as being opposed to nuclear weapons and believes that the UK should relinquish its Trident nuclear missile system. Its election manifesto calls on the UK government to publish, openly and straight forwardly, the current and future costs of the missile system and any proposed successor. As the SNP 2015 manifesto notes, “We oppose plans for a new generation of Trident nuclear weapons and seek to build an alliance in the House of Commons against Trident renewal”.
In reaction to the SNP’s very public opposition to the UK nuclear deterrent being located in Scotland, at Clyde Naval Base, there has been discussion of possible alternatives within the remainder of the UK and beyond including the US. The choice of Scotland in the midst of the Cold War as the UK nuclear submarine naval base was driven predominantly by geographical factors; a relatively and secluded maritime space, proximity to the North Atlantic and the GIUK gap. It was situated close to the US naval base at Holy Loch (1961-1992), which was imagined as a security threat in the film Who Dares Win (1982). One UK nuclear submarine is always on sea patrol at any one time.
In the light of SNP electoral strength, experience of government and recent 2014 referendum history, alternatives, however costly, are being talked about. The one that caught my eye and ear was Gibraltar, a UK overseas territory with a long history of housing UK military facilities. British Forces Gibraltar has been based there for over three hundred years but more recently the territory has also served as a NATO base, utilising its strategic base at the western entrance of the Mediterranean. During the Falklands conflict, the then Thatcher government worried that Spain might take advantage of the South Atlantic crisis and launch its own military operation against the highly disputed territory. Even before the Argentine invasion in April 1982, there had also been speculation about the role of UK nuclear submarines operating in and out of Gibraltar such as HMS Superb might have played in panicking the Argentines into taking decisive action. In 1977, in a deterrence operation codenamed Operation Journeyman, the UK first nuclear submarine HMS Dreadnought was dispatched to the South Atlantic with two frigates to warn off Argentine forces. On its return to the UK, HMS Dreadnought called into Gibraltar for resupply.
The point I am making is that Gibraltar is no stranger to the presence of UK nuclear submarines. Sometimes the visits have not always been very auspicious. In 2001, HMS Tireless was anything but tireless. For nearly a year the submarine was left in Gibraltar military docks with a cracked pipe near the nuclear reactor. The stricken submarine attracted criticism from environmental campaigners, anti-nuclear observers and Spanish protestors, and caused considerable awkwardness for the UK and Spanish governments at the time. But one thing was clear at the time the Gibraltar government staunchly defended the UK’s right to use Gibraltar as a military facility. This I think explains the observation by one academic observer that Gibraltar had ‘enough patriotism’ to handle the proposal to permanently house the UK nuclear submarine deterrent in the event of Scotland being judged a politically untenable location.
This idea of excess patriotism in Gibraltar ties into a long-standing interest I have had in ‘cultures of loyalty’ in the UK overseas territories. Working with former colleagues David Lambert and Bridget Robison, we explored how the Queen’s visit to Gibraltar in May 1954 became an opportunity to perform this ‘loyalty’ to the UK and in particular the Head of State and the UK armed forces. While there could be always be residual suspicion of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) in Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands, these two institutions were prized very highly by the communities in question. In the context of Franco’s Spain, which was eager to ensure that Gibraltar was returned to Spanish sovereignty, the Royal Visit was hugely important in cementing Gibraltar’s sense of connection to the UK. Streets were painted, flags were flown, and people gathered in large numbers to welcome the new Queen. In June 2012, a gigantic image of the Queen alongside a Union Jack was projected on to the Rock itself as part of the Diamond Jubilee celebrations. Royal visits are still highly prized there.
An image of the Queen and the Union Jack flag projected on to the Rock as part of the June 2012 Diamond Jubilee celebrations
Nuclear submarines, whether based permanently or fleetingly, are also a material and symbolic reminder of UK commitment to Gibraltar. While UK defence-related stories irritate Spanish governments (and Argentine governments in the Falklands context), they act as reassurance to those communities in the overseas territories. So whatever the provenance of stores about a possible shift of the UK nuclear deterrent, it contributes and substantiates a discourse in Gibraltar’s political life that their loyalty to the UK is as ‘solid as [the] rock’.
Meanwhile, Spanish observers, whether governmental and or environmental would surely not welcome such a move.The HMS Tireless incident raised safety issues in 2000-2001 and in 2014 HMS Astute arrived in Gibraltar and the Spanish newspapers at the time were quick to remind readers that it had an accidentally grounding off Scotland in 2010. Spain and the UK might be NATO partners but Spain had never possessed nuclear weapons. However, Spain has bore the brunt of nuclear weapons; or to be more exact the brunt of a nuclear accident. In 1966, a mid flight crash involving a B-52 bomber and a refuelling aircraft resulted in the deaths of US airmen and the destruction of explosives resulting in plutonium contamination of areas of the Mediterranean close to the Spanish village of Palomares. A huge rescue and clean up operation resulted. Importantly, the Johnson administration agreed the nuclear-armed planes would stop flying over Spain and that Gibraltar airport should no longer accommodate NATO aircraft (the southern Spanish airbase at Moron was actually the host airbase of the US refuelling flight). But Gibraltar was caught up in the geopolitical ‘fall out’.
All of this speculation will add further spice to UK-Spanish relations over Gibraltar, which have been bedevilled in recent years by tensions over submarine and surface sovereignty issues ranging from control and access to the territorial waters around Gibraltar to long standing complaints about land borders and accusations of delays and obfuscation by the Spanish authorities.
Any decision to relocate the UK nuclear deterrent (aka Trident) is not straight forward but it does remind us how the overseas territories of the Falklands and Gibraltar have been identified, as places where the presence of the UK military in all its guises is usually welcomed and highly prized, in so far as it contributes to and consolidates what we might think of as ‘cultures of loyalty’; opportunities to perform loyalty to the UK and in particular two institutions – the UK armed forces and the Royal Family. It may never happen, of course, but it does raise interesting questions about whether places have ‘enough patriotism’ to handle such a potential accommodation.