James Buchan

One afternoon last summer, just after high tide at the mouth of Loch Long in the west of Scotland, a large black submarine sat on the surface. Among the yachts and pleasure boats and passenger ferries, she looked a rough customer. There were splashes of rust down her fin, and the anti-sonar tiles cemented to the fin and casing were buckled and coming adrift. She looked as if she had been a good long time beneath the sea. She seemed to absorb the estuary light and pay back only a portion of it to those of us around her, like a cloud across the water.

The day was still for western Scotland, but the submarine did not sit well on the loch. Up on the bridge, and above the main entry hatch on the casing, stood men and officers, their white caps visible. Their postures communicated a sort of exhilaration, as though the men were glad to be very near the end of their two- or three-month cruise. Though the objects of attention, they struck no poses as if, being British submariners, their manliness could not be in doubt. (An old submariner I once knew occupied his off-watch time, in those days before DVDs, in embroidery. His mate knitted sweaters in the demanding Scottish double-yarn stitch known as Fair Isle.)

I asked a sailor, dropping kitchen trash in a bin on the ferry’s paddle sponson, what sort of submarine she was.

‘A bloody big one,’ he said.

Big she was, at least twice the 240-foot length of the boat I was on, the old paddle steamer Waverley, and perhaps forty feet in the beam. In the soft western light, she looked fierce, rare, and precious like an endangered sea mammal. I tried to imagine what submarine or submarines were beneath us to protect her at this moment of extreme vulnerability, and whether their sonar could distinguish, over the roar and hiss of the Firth of Clyde and the blowing of harbour porpoises, the unique acoustic signature of PS Waverley: the churn of her paddle-wheels, the rumble of her sixty-year-old steam engines, and, from the bar and lounge, the sound of ‘Danny Boy’ and upset furniture.

For many days afterwards, the scale of the submarine filled my imagination like a mountain. As I dawdled like a tourist on the northern Clyde, I came upon the boat at its various tasks: steaming up Loch Long to off-load her nuclear warheads at Coulport, escorted by her entourage of tugs, Royal Marine commandos and Ministry of Defence police in rigid inflatables curvetting about among the eider ducks; or moored the other side of the Rosneath Peninsula at her home port of Faslane behind a floating anti-ship boom.

Leaning on Waverley‘s rail or eating cold supermarket sandwiches under the dripping spruces, or searching the airwaves for submarine movements, or harassed by police vehicles on the military roads, I felt like a paparazzo spying on some tainted celebrity. I lodged in bed and breakfast houses of truly Scottish gentility, such that the fate of the United Kingdom’s nuclear deterrent is forever associated in my mind with Jack Vettriano prints and wicker holders for toilet rolls. I never learned the submarine’s name. The Royal Navy, for reasons of operational secrecy, wouldn’t tell me. But she was one of four ships in the Vanguard class, each of them by far the most valuable pieces of moveable property in the United Kingdom. According to the Royal Navy, Vanguard and her sisters Victorious, Vigilant and Vengeance each displace 16,000 tons of water when dived. The reason for this gigantic scale and for the broad stepped back aft of the fin or conning tower is their armament. Between the fin and the nuclear reactor that propels the boat’s steam turbines are sixteen vertical tubes each seven feet in diameter and holding American-designed Trident D5 missiles. These missiles, about three times the size of the slim Polaris missiles they replaced in 1996, were ordered in the last and most perilous phase of the Cold War in the early 1980s and still evoke the apocalyptic military doctrines of that era.

Each three-stage supersonic missile was designed to rise from periscope depth, carry twelve separate nuclear explosive warheads into space and then drop each of them on a separate target, to an accuracy of approximately 120 metres and with one hundred kilotons of explosive force. In this Armageddon of the imagination, a single British submarine at Faslane could obliterate 1,500 Hiroshimas.

Each of the three boats in service—Victorious is in refit—has not one but two dedicated crews known as the port and starboard crews, so that while one set is on patrol, the other is on leave or training at seamanship, weapons handling and sonar at the Faslane base. Each crew comprises 140 officers and men, led by a captain and first officer who have survived the notorious British Submarine Command Course, also known as the ‘Perisher’ course, so that at any one time each boat can call on four men with many millions of pounds of training in him, training that includes outrunning frigates around the Isle of Arran or in the Minch. (Women may launch but not serve in Royal Navy submarines.)

This caviar crewing has been successful. Since June 15,1968, when HMS Resolution left the Clyde on her first cruise, I was told there has not been one minute of the day or night in which one of the nuclear missile boats—first of the Resolution class, then of the Vanguard class—has not been on patrol in the Atlantic or the Arctic oceans. At the time I write this, that is exactly 300 missions. Even in the glorious annals of the British submarine service, which has commissioned 708 submarines since 1901 and won fourteen Victoria Crosses, that is not negligible.

With a maximum submerged speed of twenty-five knots, a safe operating depth of at least 800 feet (according to the Royal Navy, but almost certainly quite a bit deeper), and a suite of electronic countermeasures, the boats are designed to be all but undetectable once out in deep water. I was also told that since Resolution‘s first cruise in 1968 no British missile boat had ever been detected while on patrol. (Even so, the submarines carry a conventional armament with which to defend themselves, including long-range homing torpedoes named Spearfish.)

Now these assertions do not need to be true to deter a state adversary. In the logic of mutual assured destruction, it is enough for that state to suspect that there might be a British boat with a single nuclear-armed ballistic missile within 4,000 nautical miles of his capital city. As it turns out, only unarmed missiles have ever been launched from British submarines and only down the US Air Force Eastern Test Tange range from Cape Canaveral, Florida, most recently on 12 October, 2005 when Vanguard tested her firing systems after her refit at Devonport on the British south coast.

Unlike the United States, which has lost two nuclear submarines (USS Thresher in 1963 off New England, and USS Scorpion, with her nuclear armament south-west of the Azores, in 1968), the British missile boats have suffered no serious accident involving loss of life or, as far as has been reported, serious radiation hazard. Though peace demonstrators have repeatedly trespassed on the bases at Faslane and Coulport, nobody has been shot.

The cost of all this was given in Parliament on July 20, 2006, by the British Defence Secretary, Des Browne. The Trident system, he said, uses up between 5.0 and 5.5 per cent of the defence budget in 2006-7, or about £1.7 billion a year. This bill meets the running costs of the four boats, the 950 officers and crew, the 500 Royal Marine commandos now deployed at Faslane against terrorist attack, the 110-strong marine police unit patrolling the waters against the peace movement, the maintenance of Faslane and Coulport bases and the No. 9 refit dock at Devonport in Plymouth, the fees to the United States Government to make and store on Britain’s behalf fifty-eight unarmed Trident missiles at the naval base at King’s Bay, Georgia, and the cost of the Atomic Weapons Establishment in the Home Counties to manage and maintain 200 operational warheads. The same money would pay the fees for all the college students in Scotland for a year and the salaries and expenses of all their professors, or the annual maintenance of all Scotland’s roads, railways and ferries.

As for the cost of the capital works to build and support the submarines, those are beyond computation. They must comprise the cathedral-like Devonshire Dock Hall erected in the 1980s at Vickers (now BAE Systems) yard in Barrow-in-Furness in Cumbria to construct the boats; the 25,000-ton covered ship-lift, emergency power station and Trident training school at Faslane; the explosives handling jetty and warhead storage caves at Coulport; the seismic protection at the No. 9 nuclear refuelling dry-dock at Devonport; new investment of £350 million at the bomb factories at Aldermaston and Burghfield; and ten or fifteen miles of wire mesh, concertina barbed-tape, look-out towers and military roads. In reality, the Trident project has been by far the most costly industrial enterprise ever attempted in Britain in peacetime, or at least since the building of the Dreadnought-class battleships in the years after 1906. As for taking all these installations down and making both sea and land safe from nuclear contamination, the UK Ministry of Defence believes our heirs will have to find a further £9.73 billion for which, like old misers, we have left not a single penny in contribution.

Britain is now a rich country and certainly a great deal richer than she was on March 11, 1982, when President Reagan wrote to Margaret Thatcher, addressing her as ‘Dear Margaret’ and offering ‘to supply to the United Kingdom Trident II missiles, equipment and supporting services, subject to and in accordance with applicable United States law and procedures’. The military wastes money. That is what it does. It seems Britain can afford, in money at least, both Trident and gruelling and sanguinary wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

What Trident offered to its enthusiasts was something beyond price, a sort of perfect security. But the Cold War is over, the Trident missiles and their warheads are not actually pointed at Russia or indeed at anything, and Britain’s present enemies are individuals who blow themselves up on crowded buses and trains and can’t be located through their hydrodynamic wakes or magnetic scars. To maintain the industrial capacity to build advanced submarines and their sonar and weapons becomes more and more difficult as precision manufacturing has declined as a British industry. Even the shore installations built to accommodate the Trident boats at Faslane and Coulport in the 1980s strained British management and industry to the limit, cost twice as much as budgeted, and overran their deadline by two years.

In reality, the Vanguard-class submarine out in Loch Long is as antiquated as the battleships plunging through heavy seas in wartime newsreels; and the Royal Navy is conscientiously carrying out a specialized mission for which the purpose has vanished, like the daily changing of the candles at Windsor Castle even when the old Queen was not at home. An air of mortality has settled over these great vessels and their colossal Scottish shore fortifications. Not halfway into their service lives, the boats have questions to answer: does Britain need them? Or a successor?

To the east of Loch Long (‘the lake of the warship’ in Scottish Gaelic), on the other side of the Rosneath Peninsula with its sheep farms and neat villages, is an arm of the sea called the Gare Loch (the ‘short inlet’ in Gaelic). The glacier that formed this sea loch in prehistory left at its tail two spits of sand, and between them a channel, no more than eight hundred feet broad, known after the village on the west side as the Rhu Narrows. The channel has been repeatedly dredged since 1917, most recently to seven fathoms or 13.4 metres to permit the Vanguard-class submarines to pass. To the landlubber, watching warships gliding between the masts of the Royal Northern and Clyde Yacht Club at Rhu, the Narrows seem an extraordinarily perilous passage for a capital ship, particularly one valued in the books of the United Kingdom government at £800 million, and its far more precious officers and crew.

Yet these same Rhu Narrows have also acted as a weir, so that the Gare Loch above the Narrows runs down to thirty-three metres, and might have been designed for submarine operations. It is deep enough for a boat of Vanguard‘s size, within reach of the open sea and the attractions of Glasgow, and there is only one way in. As Commander F. W. Lipscomb wrote about the Gare Loch in The British Submarine in 1954: ‘A coracle could easily be spotted coming too near the base from seaward.’

Faslane lies five or six miles north of the Narrows in a deep bay on the east side. A naval base since at least the time of James IV in the early sixteenth century, its rise to importance occurred at the time that steam power was bringing the northern Clyde into fashion as a resort for the merchants and business people of Glasgow and Greenock. What is now the nuclear armaments depot at Coulport was once the neo-Jacobean Coulport House, built by the photographer-botanist John Kibble with a sensational glass house (that was later dismantled and barged down to Glasgow, where it still stands in the city’s botanical gardens). Beneath the new military roads are the remains of stone-embanked carriage drives, and everywhere are neat Victorian resorts—Kilcreggan, Cove, Shandon, Rhu, Garelochhead—with their stone mansions and churches in Banker’s Gothic.

Just south of the Narrows is the handsome town of Helensburgh, built by an improving landlord in the eighteenth century with that display of Anglo-Scottish Unionism that seems suspect, even frantic, to the modern Scottish eye. As you climb the hill above the Gare Loch, you pass George Street and Hanover Street, Princes Street, Queen Street, King Street, Charlotte Street. Below you is the waterfront of cigarette smokers and old-fashioned Italian restaurants and no-nonsense public houses. Ahead are some of the grandest and most beautiful streets in Britain, each house a castle with its tint of romance in stained-glass porches or pepper-pot towers, and gardens that turn to Edens in the mild Gulf Stream air. The greatest of these houses, or indeed of all houses, perhaps, is The Hill House, designed by G R. Mackintosh and his wife, Margaret MacDonald, for the Glasgow publisher Walter Blackie in 1902. At the entrance, I have seen tourists miss their step at the glimpse of an almost supernatural domesticity. Thus, the most militarized district in western Europe is also the scene of retirement and improving leisure, as if the United States had collected its entire nuclear forces in West Hampton, New York, or the French at Deauville.

The Gare Loch’s first serious encounter with submarines came on January 29,1917, when K13, one of an ill-fated class of fast steam boats designed to keep up with the fleet, was on trials from the Fairfields Shipbuilders at Govan on the Clyde. Displacing 1,780 tons when submerged (or a tenth of Vanguard), and running on the surface at twenty-one knots, she dived with an open ventilator to her oil-fired boilers as if to prove the maxim of the British submariner Max Horton: ‘There is no margin for mistakes in submarines; you are either alive or dead.’ The captain and forty-eight men escaped after fifty hours in the forward section, but twenty-nine crew and civilians were drowned. The boat was raised six weeks later, and sent back to service as K22. The lost stokers, chargemen, shipwrights, boatswains and Fairfields’ men are buried in a little cemetery across the road from the base at Faslane. Beside a ruined medieval chapel, the graves are arranged in the shape of a submarine. Below them is the thundering A814 road, then the wire mesh and razor wire and the guarded North Gate of the Clyde Submarine Base.

The modern naval base at Faslane began life in 1940 in response to the defeat of the British Expeditionary Force in France. Fearing that the south coast harbours would come under sustained German attack, the British Admiralty wanted a new port—Military Port No. 1—in the sheltered west and facing the point of the compass from which American help might be expected. It was at Faslane and a US base at Rosneath across the loch that men and material were assembled for the invasions of North Africa and France. Though the Luftwaffe pulverized Clydeside in night raids in the first half of 1941, the Germans never seemed to have found Faslane.

After the war, the base was abandoned and the site leased for a shipbreaking business. The Gare Loch became a graveyard for warships, with pools of fuel oil clogging the beaches at Garelochhead. Britain’s last battleship Vanguard and the Cunard liner Aquitania ended their lives at Faslane and there are photographs of the German battle cruiser Derfflinger, scuttled at Scapa Flow in the Orkneys in 1919, being towed into the Gare Loch on an immense floating dock, her propellers in the air. In 1957, submarines were brought back to Faslane when the Third Submarine Squadron and its depot ship were transferred from Rothesay lower down the Firth.

These boats were powered by internal combustion engines that required oxygen to function. They could run on the surface and, at periscope depth, by means of a snorkel or ‘snort’, but they needed electric battery power to operate when submerged. Much time was spent recharging batteries on the surface when the boat was vulnerable to detection and attack. The US Navy, under the direction of Admiral Hyman Rickover, had since 1948 been exploring the possibility of using steam turbines, as in the ill-fated British K-class boats, but powered not by coal or oil, which require oxygen, but by nuclear fission, which doesn’t. A nuclear vessel would not only stay submerged indefinitely, but could also generate enough power to provide clean air and water for the crew. The only limit to the length of a patrol would be the supply of food and the morale of the crew. On January 21, 1954, USS Nautilus was launched from the Electric Boat yard in Groton, Connecticut and within three years was exposing limitations in the British diesel-electric boats and anti-submarine aircraft at Nato exercises.

By now, Britain had detonated its own nuclear bombs and had constructed a prototype naval reactor at Dounreay in Caithness on the north coast of Scotland. In 1958, as part of a ‘Mutual Agreement for Co-operation on the Uses of Atomic Energy for Mutual Defence Purposes’, the United States agreed to save Britain the cost of development and sell her a Westinghouse reactor and its core of uranium fuel. The reactor and other US components—the ‘American sector’—were fitted into a Vickers-built bow and the resulting Dreadnought, so named because she marked a similar break with the past as the great Edwardian battleships, was launched on the anniversary of Britain’s most stirring naval victory (Trafalgar, October 21) in 1960. Beyond the capacity of the south-coast stations, Dreadnought arrived at Faslane in April, 1963. By then, President John F. Kennedy and the British Prime Minister, Harold MacMillan, had agreed that the United States would provide Britain with submarine-launched ballistic missiles as well as their launch tubes and targetting systems, and that Britain would allow the US navy to use the Holy Loch as a base for its Polaris submarines.

As in the case of the Trident Sales Agreement of 1980, Britain would make the warheads and the submarines. The first of the four British missile boats, HMS Resolution, was launched from the Vickers yard at Barrow on September 15, 1966, and fired her first Polaris missile down the Atlantic Missile Range on February 15, 1968. That Britain could build an effective submarine of wholly new design, even with an off-the-peg US weapon system, as well as the jetties and weapons storage to support it and all in just five years now seems an industrial miracle.

The same could not be said about the works programme to accommodate the much bigger Trident missile submarines in the 1980s. The largest and most complex work ever undertaken by the UK Ministry of Defence, the Trident Works comprised 110 different contracts, including two monsters: a covered ship lift the size of a sports stadium on the site of the old ship-breaking yard to allow maintenance of the pressure hulls and sensors; and the 150-feet-high covered floating jetty at Coulport so that the warheads from Aldermaston could be attached to the missile bodies while they were on board the submarines. Under pressure to complete the work in time for Vanguard‘s sea-trials in July, 1992, while all the while the Polaris boats were sailing in and out, the contract both missed the trials by two years and ran £1 billion over budget.

Still, the work was done. Unlike the old British naval bases in the south, such as Portsmouth, Gosport and Devonport which reveal their proud history in ropewalks, gun wharfs, covered slipways and powder magazines, the Clyde Submarine Base looks like Guantánamo Bay at a higher latitude, with its mesh and razor-wire, watchtowers and sodium lighting. From the water, the ship lift, explosives jetty and weapons-storage bunkers could be the set of a James Bond film that has inexplicably fallen into the hands of a committee. With about 7,000 employees, both military and civilian, it is easily the largest industrial enterprise in Scotland.

In addition to the Vanguard-class boats are three Swiftsure-class attack submarines and Royal Marine commandos of ‘Commachio Group’ to protect them and their weapons; the Northern Diving Group which clears unexploded ordnance from the Scottish gunnery ranges, notably at Cape Wrath; and eight mine hunters. Faslane is also the base for a long-established Nato air-and-sea inshore exercise now known as Neptune Warrior. The hotels for 2,500 British and Nato sailors and other civil operations at the base are operated by a civilian company, Babcock Naval Services, on a ten-year contract valued at £825 million.

Between the ordering of Vanguard and her sea trials, the division of Europe ended and with it the Cold War. Unlike the Resolution-class submarines, Vanguard sailed on her maiden patrol on 13 December, 1994 without specific target co-ordinates for her nuclear missiles. Presenting to Parliament a Strategic Defence Review in 1998, George Robertson, the first Labour Defence Secretary, revealed that the UK’s nuclear arsenal had been reduced to ‘less than two hundred operationally available warheads’, all of them with the Trident fleet, and no boat would carry more than forty-eight warheads. The order for missile bodies at the US submarine base at King’s Bay, Georgia, was reduced to fifty-eight (or six less than the full complement).

Meanwhile, Robertson said, certain missiles would be deployed in a ‘sub-strategic’ role: that is, that one or more of the missiles in the load would be armed with a warhead of just one or two kilotons of explosive force for use in a limited attack on a military target. In recognition of the reduced threat, he said, the missile submarines would be available for hydrographic work, equipment trials and general exercises. In November 1998, Vanguard paid a visit to Gibraltar and a few months later Victorious spent five days in the French naval port of Brest. Nuclear sharpshooter, Admiral’s steam-yacht, Oceanographer Royal: British ministers seemed at a loss to know what to do with their once dreadful machines and their expert crews.

This political weakness has not been matched by any corresponding strength of the anti-Trident movement. I missed the Trident Ploughshares peace camp at Coulport in the summer and in all my lazy days on the Gare Loch, I did not see a single protestor. Even their forlorn slogans, trident out! or trident is terrorism, splashed across bridges and garage doors reminded me only of the absence of people. The Faslane Peace Camp, installed in 1982 at Shandon, was deserted when I called. Like the gardens of Helensburgh, it seemed to be reverting to wilderness.

According to a veteran of the Scottish peace movement, the truth is that the campaign against nuclear weapons waxes and wanes with the diplomatic temperature. It was at its strongest in Glasgow in the early 1960s, when the US Polaris boats and their supply ship and floating dock arrived at Holy Loch, and erupted again during the early 1980s in the crisis caused by the deployment of new land-based missiles (Cruise and Pershing-2 ballistic missiles) in England, West Germany and Italy. Today the anti-Trident movement seems as becalmed as the boats themselves and has lost its purchase even on the Scottish Labour Party. Gordon Brown, the leading Scottish politician, Chancellor of the Exchequer and heir apparent to Prime Minister Tony Blair, said on June 21, 2006 that his Britain would be ‘strong in defence in fighting terrorism, upholding NATO, supporting our armed forces at home and abroad, and retaining our independent nuclear deterrent.’ As so often with military equipment, retaining means replacing with more expensive.

The Trident missile is not yet obsolete. The United States has plans to extend the lives of its own Trident missiles into the 2040s. The British warheads need only to have their decayed radioactive elements regularly replaced. That leaves the submarines, or rather the mortal parts of them, which are the pressure hulls and the nuclear reactor vessels. Those were built with an expected life of about twenty-five years.

There are no reports that the British nuclear missile submarines have been driven to crushing depths or forced into the kind of manoeuvres that are bread-and-butter to hunter-killer nuclear submarines. One former officer said that, in reality, one of the boats is redundant since only three are needed to keep one on station. Vanguard, which has been fitted with a new reactor core to see out her service life, could probably serve until 2025, and the other three into the second half of the 2020s.

Still, since Vanguard took fourteen years to design, build, equip and test, a decision on a replacement can’t be put off too much longer. On July 4, 2005 the then Secretary of State for Defence, John Reid, told the House of Common that ‘decisions on any replacement of the United Kingdom’s nuclear deterrent are likely to be necessary in the lifetime of the current parliament.’ That parliament will end not later than 2010. Gordon Brown has since shown which way he thinks the decision should go.

What complicates the decision is that Britain now possesses just one submarine builder, the great Vickers yard at Barrow now owned by BAE Systems. Like Electric Boat, the division of General Dynamics in Groton, Connecticut, Barrow depends for its existence on orders for nuclear-powered submarines from the government. Its present contract for three Astute-class hunter-killer submarines all but overwhelmed the yard, but the first in the series is due to be delivered (with assistance from Electric Boat) next June and take up station at Faslane in 2009. Unlike diesel-electric submarines, which the United Kingdom abandoned in 2004, nuclear submarines have no foreign markets that might extend a production line and spread the cost per unit. If some 200 submarine designers and technicians are not to be given their cards, and with them a hundred-year British industry, Barrow needs a new order. The future of Trident thus becomes less a matter of pure strategy and more a sort of country dance in which tricky political and industrial steps must be made at precisely the right intervals.

Of the possibilities under discussion, there are two that are unlikely to be realized. The first is that the United Kingdom simply does not replace the Vanguard boats and is content to leave France as the only nuclear power in western Europe. If the Vanguard story has any lesson for a modern government, it is that it is impossible to predict the strategic situation even ten years in the future. As many as thirty-five states in the world are thought to have the capacity (if not the wish) to build a nuclear weapon. In such a world, it is hard to imagine any British government renouncing its nuclear forces.

There seems just as little chance of the government ordering another specialized ballistic missile submarine, which appears in retrospect to have been a particular creation of the Cold War. Its invulnerability may have helped keep the nuclear peace in the northern hemisphere. But it has little power to dissuade terrorists, and even a state adversary would be likely to launch its attack on Britain by way of irregular forces. In any case, a squadron of missile boats that incorporated all the new weapons and sonar technologies would cost from £20 billion to £30 billion: too much to pay.

What might please some constituencies—the Royal Navy, the House of Commons, industry—would be to insert an extra hull section into the Astute-class design aft of the fin, with a smaller but much more versatile battery of launch tubes. These could hold either nuclear ballistic missiles, or conventional ordnance, unmanned underwater vehicles, equipment for special forces, deployable sensors. At the price of blurring the old distinction between nuclear weapons and conventional high explosive, the new boats might allow the government to announce to the world that it had reduced its ‘operationally available’ stock of warheads still further. The Vanguard class will then pass into that special corner of the public affection reserved for sea-planes and armoured trains and other military dead ends, memorialized in those laborious marine paintings and prints you sometimes see in men’s clubs and military messes: Sunset on the Gare Loch, HMS Vengeance turning to port, or Good work, Victorious!

Conversations with ordinary people in Helensburgh and on the water show a people quite inured to the ugly buildings and fences and the warships filling their windowpanes at sun-up or gliding through the trees. These are people of a particular character, who are proud of the maritime and engineering traditions of the Clyde, and without illusions about the good nature of the world. They know that the Ministry of Defence gives and takes away.

That leaves the Scottish Nationalist Party, who are determined to expel nuclear weapons from Scotland. If the party gains power in elections in May, 2007 to the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh, it will call a referendum to ask the Scots if they want to break the political union with England. Should the Scottish public choose independence, a Scottish Nationalist government in Edinburgh ‘will negotiate the safe removal of Trident from Scotland.’ In this eventuality, however unlikely as of today, it is hard to imagine the independent Scottish Defence Force having much need for a 25,000-ton ship lift or sixteen warhead-storage bunkers.

What the people of Helensburgh and Rosneath do not want is a nuclear dump. Even if Coulport or Faslane become partly redundant as bases for a British nuclear ballistic missile flotilla, Coulport might yet have a long, long future as a berth for decommissioned nuclear submarines. These will remain a radioactive hazard for hundreds of years. Of the twenty-seven nuclear submarines built in Britain since Dreadnought, twelve are sitting in water or dry dock at Devonport and Rosyth on the Forth. In a forlorn group that you almost miss as you drive round Devonport are Valiant, Warspite, Courageous, Conqueror, which sunk the Argentine battle-cruiser General Belgrano on May 2, 1982 and came into the Gare Loch flying the skull and crossbones, and Splendid, which launched cruise missiles during action off Kosovo and in the Persian Gulf. At Rosyth is Dreadnought herself, Churchill, the four Resolution-class boats, and Swiftsure. Neither yard wants any more. The possibility that Loch Long might turn into a sort of radioactive national park does not appeal to this part of Scotland.

Inland of Faslane and Helensburgh is a long valley, known as Glen Fruin, which drains the military exercise area at the head of the Gare Loch not into the sea but into Loch Lomond to the east. On the Ordnance Survey map, it looks the sort of place not many people go to, the sort of place you can walk for a Sunday in the sun and rain and think about nothing in particular.

The road runs north-west from what was once the Cross Keys public house, passes through plantations, and opens up into a broad valley. Following the looping stream, with trout parr splashing in the shallows, you come on neat farm steadings and the ghosts of ancient turf fences and ash and hawthorn hedges. You pass upwards in clouds of meadow pipits. There is nothing to be heard but the faint roar of the military road, with the base workers returning to their houses in Bonhill, and the buzzards mewing above them.

At the head of the valley is Strone farm, and just above it the remains of the old Admiralty Hydro-Ballistic Research Establishment, which operated a tank to investigate the effects of water on the trajectories and impacts of bombs and torpedoes. (There is a photograph of engineers from Dassault at the station in about 1960, looking as French engineers used to look: brilliantine, leather coats, moustaches, brown-tobacco cigarettes.) Now a shabby training camp, it looks the sort of place homesick army recruits are dropped at midnight. Higher up yet is a stone to commemorate a bloody fight between Clan Colquhoun and Clan Gregor on 7 February, 1603. At the top, beside the remains of the old highlandman’s road is the rusted but still intact base-plate of an anti-aircraft battery from the Second World War.

The great blue panorama of the Clyde estuary—sea, hills, islands—stretched to the horizon. I sat down in the heather to eat an apple and thought how industrial and military enterprises last just a moment of a moment, but leave long ruins to intrigue a philosophical mind. Squat in the distance lay the square concrete of Hunterston power station, two of its four nuclear reactors shut down. Further up the Firth stood the 700-foot chimney of Inverkip power station—oil fired, too expensive to run, abandoned. Over by Port Glasgow and Greenock a couple of lonely cranes marked the remmants of Clyde shipbuilding on the lower river. Closer to, on my side of the water, a Royal Navy stores ship steamed towards the munitions jetty at Glen Mallen. Finally, just beneath my aching feet, a Vanguard-class submarine was tied up beside the covered ship lift and unloading her torpedoes.

In these various scenes lay the story of the British twentieth century.

The Bastard of Istanbul