By Alasdair Galloway
In a recent letter to the Herald, Gavin Weir comments on the report “that the Ministry of Defence could keep Trident within an independent Scotland by creating a new British Overseas Territory.” He questions, however, “Who would exercise sovereignty, and for how long?” He also doubts whether “any Scottish government would agree to a long-term lease, though a decade might work, if oversight could be “fudged”.”
While I agree with him about the view of an independent Scottish Government, we need to keep in mind that there are two involved in this particular matter – Westminster as well. I have serious reservations whether the niceties referred to by Mr Weir would matter all that much to them.
As an illustration, let’s take the most notorious example of a British Overseas Territory – specifically the British Indian Ocean Territory. This was created in 1965 from islands which historically belonged to Mauritius and the Seychelles, both then part of the British Empire. The islands which had belonged to the Seychelles were returned to them on independence in 1976. However, on their independence in 1968, no islands were returned to Mauritius (though the UK promised to return them “when they are no longer needed”)
The retained islands are widely known as the Chagos Islands, and the UK’s position on their retention as part of the UK is instructive. The reason for their retention, given by Westminster to the Permanent Court of Arbitration, was that Diego Garcia (one of the Chagos Islands) was needed “to accommodate the United States’ desire to use certain islands in the Indian Ocean for defence purposes”.
Mauritius has brought actions for the return of the Chagos Islands against the UK in about every international forum that you can think of. A vote at the UN, brought by Mauritius, resulted in a vote of 116-6 against the UK. As well as the Permanent Court of Arbitration, rulings have been granted against the UK at the International Court of Justice, and most recently by the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS), yet the UK continues to insist “The UK has no doubt as to our sovereignty over the British Indian Ocean Territory”, describing the ICJ ruling as an “advisory opinion, not a judgment”.
This is despite the fact that at the ICJ, its president, Abdulqawi Ahmed Yusuf, said the detachment of the Chagos archipelago in 1965 from Mauritius had not been based on a “free and genuine expression of the people concerned”.” He went on “The UK has an obligation to bring to an end its administration of the Chagos archipelago as rapidly as possible and that all member states must co-operate with the United Nations to complete the decolonization of Mauritius.” Note especially the reference to “decolonization”, and that Mauritius claims it was forced to give up the Chagos Islands in exchange for independence – “if you want your independence, then this is the cost”.
How did the UK respond? “This is an advisory opinion, not a judgment. Of course, we will look at the detail of it carefully. The defence facilities on the British Indian Ocean Territory help to protect people here in Britain and around the world from terrorist threats, organised crime and piracy.” Note the reference to defence.
This may be no more than a bit of whimsy, but the fact that the UN postal agency banned British stamps from being used on the Chagos archipelago in its own little way tells a story.
Therefore, I would suggest that an Overseas Territory is not something Westminster would have any qualms about creating, defending and maintaining quite shamelessly, justifying their actions on arguments about defence and security. They’ve done it before!
Another example, though known as a “Sovereign Base Area” is the RAF base at Akrotiri in Cyprus. According to the MoD, SBAs are “primarily required as military bases and not ordinary dependent territories”, being “in a region of geo-political importance and high priority for the United Kingdom’s long-term national security interests”, according to a 2010 review by Lord Ashcroft. Sound familiar?
The Cypriot view is that the base is a “remnant of colonialism”, but unlike Mauritius they are prepared to grant the UK “as much sovereignty as is necessary for military reasons”, however Westminster does not recognise any such claims that the UK’s sovereignty in the areas is limited.
What both these examples demonstrate is that the issue of sovereignty in such enclaves is clear – sovereignty is for Westminster. If we revert to the Cypriot case again, we find that the Cypriots did negotiate the continued presence of the airbase before independence – the London and Zurich Agreements – though Cyprus argues that the UK is not meeting the financial obligations of these agreements. However, what was their alternative? To say “no”? How might this have affected their independence? Presented with the determination of the UK not to give up the bases what were the Cypriots to do? Would they not have agreed to their own independence unless the SBA reverted to Cyprus and the British left?
Might this not be a parable for our own independence? Let’s suppose there has been an agreed referendum, which has been won by c.60%+ (i.e. it’s conclusive for everyone but the hardest core of Unionism) and negotiations have been started. There are plenty of bones of contention – for instance how much debt will Scotland take from the UK? What assets will be made available for Scotland? Lots there to fall out about, but we get near enough to a conclusion – even if it means parking a few issues and kicking some along the road (or into deep rough) – BUT HMNB and its future are still to be settled. The MoD have investigated in depth the main alternatives and found none of them suitable
- Barrow – the tidal patterns mean boats could only come and go once a week.
- Devonport – not a lot of room, lots of local opposition because they’re not safe and will do terrible things to tourism and many local constituencies are held by Tory MPs
- Milford Haven – deep water and its in Wales, but there is also a gas plant there with a pipe running right across the bay. An accident would take the place beyond Kingdom come
- Sending them to the US – possible but expensive and with several complexities, not least that crew would have to be located there (think Helensburgh)
- Sending them to France – are you **///???.>>>>>>>>>>> kidding?
Therefore the negotiators are told to advise their Scottish counterparts that the talks will not continue unless they are prepared to accept an SBA in Gareloch and Loch Long as far as Portincaple (passports just after Rhu corner). Navigation rights will be negotiated but are expected to be like now. What do we do?
On the basis of the Chagos Islanders the UK won’t be kidding – there is a good likelihood the US will be cheering Westminster on from the sidelines as it will maintain the North Atlantic nuclear presence.
On the basis of Cyprus we can accept it and move forward to independence with that atrocity still at the end of the Clyde? It is of course possible we could charge them a good screw in rent (though it will never ever be enough), and securing various advantages in the independence agreement (just not this part of it).
The poverty about saying “no” is that however it works out we still have the base
- We are independent with an SBA, or
- We remain in the UK with HMNB.
Like I said, “Hobson’s Choice”.
The debate about the future of HMNB Clyde has been handicapped by two things. One is that the UK has established ways of dealing with this problem. Do we really expect them to act differently? The other is the assumption that we are dealing with an honourable partner!