Revealed: the MOD plan to move Trident
Devonport, near Plymouth, has emerged as the MoD's favourite alternative to Faslane. The base is almost certain to become the new home of the submarines and missiles that form the UK's nuclear deterrent should Scotland become independent.
But military planners have not ruled out withdrawing from the Royal Navy base on the Clyde at Faslane long before a decision on independence.
The revelation was last night seized upon by the SNP as a massive endorsement of their controversial anti-nuclear stance. It also returned the issue of independence to the heart of the Holyrood election.
But there was also widespread concern at any plan to move the missiles out of Scotland, where ministers claim the livelihoods of 11,000 shipyard workers depend on Trident.
Experts putting together proposals to renew the UK's Trident missile-delivery system were ordered to consider alternatives amid fears control of the Clyde base would be wrested from the MoD if the SNP won control at Holyrood and moved Scotland closer to "home rule".
Scotland on Sunday has learned that the swing towards the SNP forced the MoD to review three sites in England and one in Wales. The sites were originally considered as potential hosts for the UK's nuclear deterrent when the government was seeking a base for the Polaris system in the 1960s.
Devonport, where the four Vanguard-class submarines are refitted and refuelled, is considered the second-best option, but it does not presently have a facility - unlike Coulport - where missiles can be loaded, unloaded and stored.
A new missile depot, would cost millions of pounds and inevitably provoke enormous protests from local people. But it could be built near Devonport.
A senior MoD source said last night:
"We have to look at everything that might have an impact on this project, and the possibility of a change in the devolution settlement - however remote that may seem - is one of those factors."
William Walker, a defence expert at St Andrews University, said the Trident question was a fundamental issue which would have a far-reaching impact on the future of Scotland. He claimed senior Navy officers in Scotland had been trying to alert their bosses to the dangers posed by devolution since the Scots elected their first modern parliament in 1999.
"Even if independence isn't inevitable, more devolution is, and that will inevitably affect the relationship over Trident," said Prof Walker. "Until now, it seems the MoD has adopted a head-in-the-sand attitude to this question."
"There is now a consensus against Trident in this country which the government cannot ignore," an SNP spokesman said last night. "We will do everything we can to carry out the wishes of the majority of the Scottish people."
A Tory spokesman said last night: "This is a perfect example of the dangers the SNP poses to the Scottish people and the rest of the UK.
"If anyone is really considering voting for this party, they should ask themselves whether they want to break up the UK, to undermine its fundamental defences and, now, to threaten thousands of jobs in one of our remaining industries."
A spokesman for the Labour party declined to comment. The MoD refused to comment.