The Geo-Politics of Military Bases, Empire and Independence

Diego Garcia

A US Navy submarine in Diego Garcia. The UK colony was leased to the Americans, in exchange the Royal Navy got a discount on Polaris nuclear submarines, that were based at Faslane

The Ministry of Defence’s latest threat to keep Faslane as sovereign territory in the event of Scottish Independence should be seen in the context of Britain’s imperial history of maintaining military bases against the wishes of local people across the world.

It looks like a normal Scottish Loch. A picturesque valley with a sparkling expanse of water. Except that lurking in the corner is a harbour with watchtowers, police patrol boats and mysterious sheds. This is Her Majesty’s Naval Base Clyde, better known as Faslane. It is home to Britain’s strategic nuclear submarine fleet, and a key issue in the Scottish independence referendum campaign.

The Ministry of Defence (MOD) have proposed to make the base sovereign UK territory if Scots vote for independence in September 2014. Faslane would have the same status as the British military bases on Cyprus. Understandably, this provoked outrage from the Scottish National Party. Downing Street tried to distance itself from the MOD proposal, claiming it was “neither credible nor sensible”. But the MOD has not scrapped the plan, insisting instead that the “sovereign base area is an option. It is an interesting idea”.

Should this come as a surprise? The reference to Cyprus is instructive, and suggests a need to look at imperial history to understand the MOD’s pedigree. Indeed, decolonisation was riddled with instances where Britain stubbornly refused to return land that it wanted to keep for military bases. For example, Britain fought brutal counter-insurgency campaigns in Cyprus, Aden and Kenya, always with an eye on their strategic significance. The Sovereign Base Area in Cyprus consists of Akrotiri and Dhekelia, the former being the only RAF base in the Mediterranean – conveniently close to the Suez Canal and the Middle East. Cyprus was a British colony, until a Greek Cypriot uprising on the island in 1955 began to threaten Empire. Four years of armed struggle saw independence granted in 1960, but by that time the islanders’ rebellious spirit had been heavily suppressed – including through the widespread use of torture by UK troops. Empire may have lost the war, but it managed to force the concession that Akrotiri and Dhekelia would remain British military bases.

When Kenya won its independence in 1963, a deal was signed allowing the British Army to keep a training facility just outside Nairobi. Even as Whitehall finally admits the atrocities they committed against the Mau Mau anti-colonial struggle, the British Army are building a new military base in Kenya to extend their existing facilities there, through which six infantry battalions train each year (see here for example).

Apparently, the Kenyan base offers a perfect environment for training British soldiers prior to their deployment in Afghanistan. Or as one commander put it, “Kenya is superb because it gives us unparalleled opportunities for live firing”. Whether local people appreciate this opportunity is less certain – hundreds have been killed from this live firing and unexploded ordinance. (It’s not as if the MOD didn’t have enough Kenyan soil already – the training area is already four times the size of all UK training areas put together.)

Size isn’t everything though. Often it is a case of location, location, and population, as the Chagos Islanders know painfully well. A small island can be invaluable, depending on where it is, and whether the local population is expendable. When Britain granted Mauritius independence, it did so on the condition it could keep the Chagos archipelago, thereby creating a new crown colony – the British Indian Ocean Territory. The land was then leased to the Americans. In return, the Royal Navy got a $14 million discount off a Polaris nuclear submarine (that would be based at Faslane).

Diego Garcia, the largest of the Chagos Islands, became America’s “single most important military facility”, according to national security analyst John Pike. Its deep and sheltered lagoon was ideal for US warships and submarines. Situated in the centre of the Indian Ocean, stealth bombers have taken off from the island to mount aerial attacks on Afghanistan (2001) and Iraq (1991 and 2003).

Because the indigenous Black inhabitants were seen as a security threat to the base, the islands were “swept and sanitised”, leading to 2,000 Chagossians being deported to Mauritius and the Seychelles. A senior civil servant at the Foreign Office wrote, “We must surely be very tough about this. The object of the exercise was to get some rocks that will remain ours. There will be no indigenous population except seagulls.” His colleague commented that, “Along with the Birds go some Tarzans or Men Fridays …”.

Britain then lied to the UN by portraying the ethnic cleansing as the mere “returning home” of some contracted workers. The American base would also appear to support UK strategic interests in the Indian Ocean region, to the extent that Whitehall has concocted spurious environmental reasons to extend the island’s lease by 20 years in 2016.

It is worrying that Faslane shares so many of these characteristics with Diego Garcia. Let’s start with its location. Gareloch is unusually deep, and depth is essential for nuclear submarine bases. According to CND, there is no harbour in England that the MOD consider deep enough. The location of Scotland itself is equally important. Jutting out into the North Atlantic, Scotland forms a plug in the Greenland-Iceland-UK Gap (GIUK). This cornerstone of cold war strategy recognised that Soviet submarines could not access America’s Eastern seaboard without passing through GIUK. For this reason, a submarine base on the west coast of Scotland is still indispensable for NATO forces to patrol the North Atlantic.

Lastly, who are the population that live near Faslane? Well, they are Scottish, not English. It is often said that if Trident is so safe, why isn’t it based on the Thames? The question is rhetorical, but has a serious point. If things go catastrophically wrong, Whitehall would rather Scots die. If you think I’m being sensationalist, consider this. The only place in Europe where NATO can practice dropping live 1,000lb bombs is on Garvie Island, off north-west Scotland – as this video shows.

It is almost inevitable that Empire will attempt to subvert or destroy Independence movements when they jeopardise military bases in strategic places. Trincomalee harbour is one of the deepest and most sheltered in Asia, and the Royal Navy’s East Indies Fleet was based there during the Second World War. It is located in north east Sri Lanka, giving immediate access to some of the Indian Ocean’s most vital shipping lanes and trade routes.

For these reasons, the US have long desired Trincomalee as a military base. However, the local people had other ideas. Predominately Tamil, they wanted Trincomalee to be the capital of an autonomous Tamil state, not an outpost of Empire. The Sri Lankan state’s counter-insurgency campaign against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam gave the US military numerous opportunities to train elite Sri Lankan units, gaining leverage for a future base on the island. Before their 2008-9 genocidal offensive against the Tamils, the Sri Lankan government signed the Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreement (ACSA) with the US, allowing the latter to gain a priceless logistical asset. Bi-lateral military co-operation remains strong.  In July of this year, US Navy SEALS completed a joint exercise with Sri Lankan Special Forces in Trincomalee.

A recent opinion piece in the Glasgow Herald asked what Sri Lanka could learn from the Scottish referendum campaign. This is a valid question, but it may also be poignant to ask what Scotland can learn – about geo-politics, imperialism and military bases – from the Tamil Independence struggle? Already the SNP are wary of sabotage. Margo MacDonald MSP has written to MI5′s Director-General asking for “an assurance that UK Security Services will not be used in any respect in the lead-up to the Scottish referendum on sovereignty”. In any case, one thing remains certain: any assessment of the MOD’s plans for Faslane should take into account their alarming imperial precedents.

This article was originally published by Ceasefire Magazine

Comments (11)

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  1. Shocking attitude from the clown presenting the report on Garvie Island getting bombed. Treated the whole thing like it was some sort of jolly wheeze, dontcha know! Over and above all that Scotland never got a single mention in his whole report. Classic example of the BBC’s Imperialist mindset.

  2. Jim says:

    I dont believe the annexing of Faslane has any legs, but it is a great piece all round. A number of “overseas territories” have military bases which have cost £billions to construct and maintain eg, a military base and airport on Ascension island in the Atlantic.

    Military activity is also probably still hampering oil exploitation off the west coast of Scotland.

    Its also the case that the island of Gruinard was contaminated with anthrax to test how lethal it was and its still a no go area for the people of Scotland.

    UK military interests do not serve Scotland well. We’re just ideally “desolate” to them!

  3. bigirishman says:

    Couple of comments. You totally ignored the question of Ireland. As part of the Anglo Irish Treaty the UK kept a number of “Treaty Ports” Berehaven, Queenstown (modern Cobh) and Lough Swilly. These were retained until the Free State recovered them in 1938 at the end of the Economic War.
    Some of us have long thought that Faslane will become a Treaty Port for perhaps 10 years after Independence. This story is merely part of the dance before these negotiations.
    There is however a very important point which has been missed. The While the Gareloch is deep, the Channel through the Rhu narrows which is the only way to get ships in and out is less than 250 m wide (and 13.4 m deep).
    It would not be impossible to block this or to cause problems to shipping attempting to enter or leave. In the event of the base being held against the wishes of a Sovereign Scottish Government such things might happen.
    I appreciate that the real reason for the piece is to note how HMG has behaved in other areas, but it has always been with the agreement of the local government. My impression of this truly silly idea is that it would be imposed.

  4. Virgil Caine says:

    Great piece that nails the geo-political wrangling of empire and I agree entirely that nuclear subs should be removed from Scotland as well as the whole UK but the nationalist spin on this with regards Scotland/indyref makes a few slightly contradictory points to some of the previously well argued points. Firstly, Scotland as a nation cannot extract itself from the holocaust that was/is the British empire, it was embroiled, involved fully and like the rest of the UK is guilty. I know you do not argue this implicitly but there is an undertone that suggests it – obviously independence would extract Scotland from on-going UK geo-pol post-indy. Secondly, the reason why Faslane is where it is, is because of the geo-politics of the Cold War, as you stated the GIUK, the concept of the ‘gap’ make the location key to Cold War planners. This base could have been a number of other places – Falmouth for example is the 3rd deepest natural harbour in the world but that would be further away from the gap. Thirdly, you mention, why not the Thames, again it is further away from the gap but counter to the idea that if something goes wrong, it is better that it is further away from London, is that London is also encircled by a variety of other potentially dangerous nuclear sites, as is most of southern England. Given the safety record of nuclear power stations in comparison to stored nuclear weapons, I’ve got an idea of which is safer if forced to have both. Added to this, if something does go wrong at any of these sites, everyone will suffer from the consequences due to the relatively small size of the UK as a whole.

    What I guess sickens me most though and agree entirely with you (having watched that Pilger docu too) is that most of these sovereign bases exist for the moment relatively amicably with the countries in which they are based with the exception of Diego Garcia. For example, opposition to them on Cyprus is greatly reduced despite previous military atrocities and even some more recent protests/riots against them (I think the last serious one was about 10 years ago now) this has been mainly due to the UK paying a lot of money to the Cypriot gov and by employing a large number of Cypriots in the running of the bases. The on-going case of Diego Garcia however, where subsequent governments have allowed this disgrace to continue really sickens me as there seems to be currently no way in which Diego Garcia’s remaining pop will ever return due to US/UK policy – they are just waiting for them to die basically.

    Also no mention of the hot potato topics of Gibraltar and the Falklands?

    1. bellacaledonia says:

      Thanks Virgil. You say: “Scotland as a nation cannot extract itself from the holocaust that was/is the British empire, it was embroiled, involved fully and like the rest of the UK is guilty.” Partly true, but the whole focus of the independence movement is for the future: ‘this is about the Raploch not Bannockburn’.

      1. Virgil Caine says:

        Agree entirely, that’s why I make the point about post-ref but the piece purposely and insightfully draws out points in history about the UK state – cough, cough (highly unlikely this) but the UK state into the future has the ability to do things differently too.

  5. crazybear says:

    Perhaps you could actually have used a picture of Faslane or at least captioned where this photograph was taken. Because it most definitely is NOT Faslane or Coulport… from either base would have rather large hills in the background….something that unionists will pick up on

    1. bellacaledonia says:

      I’ll wait Unionists picking up on this terrible error

    2. Phil Miller says:

      The photo is of a US submarine in Diego Garcia – the caption should have read “A US Navy submarine in Diego Garcia. The UK colony was leased to the Americans, in exchange the Royal Navy got a discount on Polaris nuclear submarines, that were based at Faslane”

      1. bellacaledonia says:

        It does now.

  6. Cozmiester says:

    Wonderfully insightful piece of writing.

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