The group, which will be chaired by the minister for parliamentary business, Bruce Crawford MSP, is seen by many as a crucial step towards making Scotland a nuclear-free nation - and could trigger a confrontation with Westminster.
Including religious leaders, academics, activists, a lawyer and a trade unionist, the group has been tasked with finding legal, planning, regulatory and diplomatic ways to block the UK government’s plan to replace Britain’s Trident nuclear weapons system on the Clyde.
Up to 200 British nuclear warheads are stored behind barbed wire and watchtowers at the Royal Navy Armaments Depot at Coulport, on Loch Long. As many as 48 at a time are taken to sea from Faslane eight miles away on Gare Loch by one of four Trident submarines.
A plan to replace Trident over the next 20 years was agreed by the former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and backed by the House of Commons in London last year, despite a major Labour revolt. The plan has been pursued by the current Prime Minister, Gordon Brown.
But it is strongly opposed by a majority of people and their elected representatives in Scotland. The problem for the Scottish government, however, is that policy on Trident and other defence matters is reserved to Westminster.
Nevertheless Scottish ministers have been determined to act on their long-held opposition to the presence of nuclear warheads on Scottish soil. “It is only right that we consider how to raise the Scottish arguments with the UK Government,” Bruce Crawford said yesterday.
“The plain facts are that a majority of Scottish MPs oppose the son of Trident, a majority of MSPs oppose the son of Trident and a clear majority of Scots, in poll after poll, oppose the son of Trident.”
In October, Crawford convened a major summit on Trident in Glasgow, which backed the idea of setting up a group to work towards a nuclear-free Scotland. “The summit was a significant event – but it wasn’t an end in itself,” he told the Sunday Herald.
“The task now is to explore further how we take forward the issues raised at the meeting. I believe that the working group has the expertise required to report to ministers with relevant advice.”
Members of the 13-strong working group include the Rev Dr David Sinclair from the Church of Scotland, John Deighan from the Roman Catholic Church and Osama Saeed from the Scottish Islamic Foundation. Others are Professor William Walker from the School of International Relations at the University of St Andrews and Dr Rebecca Johnson of the Acronym Institute for Disarmament Diplomacy.
They will be joined by David Moxham from the Scottish Trades Union Congress, Gillian Slider from the Scottish Youth Parliament, Isobel Lindsay from Scotland’s for Peace, and James Robb, an SNP councillor for Helensburgh, near Faslane.
Another member of the group, the chair of the Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, Alan Mackinnon, argued that it would carry out the wishes of the majority of Scots. “It will explore practical and effective ways to obstruct the deployment of new weapons of mass destruction,” he said.
According to Dr Richard Dixon of WWF Scotland, also a member of the new group, nuclear war would be “the ultimate environmental disaster.” He added: “I hope that together we can rid Scotland of the curse of nuclear weapons, and thereby send a clear message that will help the cause of nuclear disarmament around the world.”
The working group has been given a six-point remit including alternative employment, the legality of nuclear weapons and the “adequacy of the current licensing and regulatory framework” (see panel). It is expected to have its first meeting in the Spring, and to meet around three times a year.
A report last week alleging that the UK government was secretly preparing to withdraw Trident from the Clyde because of Scottish opposition was dismissed as “absolute balderdash” by a Ministry of Defence spokesman yesterday. None of the existing naval bases in the south of England were suitable, he said.
But Dr Jeremy Stocker, a nuclear weapons expert from the Royal United Services Institute in Whitehall, pointed out that Falmouth in Cornwall had been identified in the 1960s as a suitable location for storing the nuclear warheads. It might also be possible to base the submarines at Devonport in Plymouth, he said.
He added: “I don’t think anyone in London wants to think seriously about relocating Trident in south west England. But because of devolution, it is a nagging worry at the back of their minds.”
The official remit of the new working group
In the event of a decision to remove nuclear weapons from HM Naval Base Clyde, to examine the economic impact and to identify options for the development of alternative employment opportunities.
To explore the various international opinions that exist on the legality of nuclear weapons so far as relevant to matters within the devolved competence of the Scottish Government.
To explore the implications of seeking observer status at the Non-Proliferation Treaty Group and advise the Scottish Government on that process.
To consider the adequacy of the current licensing and regulatory framework that exists in relation to HM Naval Base Clyde in relation to environmental, planning and transport issues.
To identify good practice elsewhere in the world in developing peace and reconciliation and consider how Scotland might contribute to this work.
To report to Ministers with advice, within the context of their devolved responsibilities, on a regular basis.
source: Scottish government