Rebecca Sharkey on Medact’s trip to Faslane and Holyrood

I’ve been campaigning for a year and a half as part of ICAN, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, and I know perhaps more than I’d like to about these horrible weapons. But I’d never seen one with my own eyes until last month, when I took a coach trip organised by Medact members in Scotland to see the nuclear armed submarines docked at Faslane, less than an hour’s drive from Glasgow. A more picturesque Scottish setting would be hard to find – mist covered hills, the sun poking through to reflect off the waters of the lochs. Yet along the roadside, between us and the water of the loch on the left, were miles of high fences draped in rolls and rolls of razor wire; beneath the hills to our right, our guide explained, were hidden dozens of nuclear warheads at the Coulport weapons store. Large newly-built blocks of small-windowed, bland flats behind the fences seemed incongruous in the otherwise rural setting; these are to house those people working on building and maintaining the next generation of nuclear submarines.

Jamie, our knowledgeable and softly-spoken guide, was among the dozen or so people living at the Faslane Peace Camp, just down the road from the nuclear weapons base, where we were treated to tea and homemade chocolate cake. Jamie showed us where, only last week, he and another protester had put a ladder up to the fence and cut through the razor wire, using pieces of old of carpet to climb over the further rolls of wire lying on the inside of the fence. They made it all the way down on to the jetty, and even briefly boarded the berthed nuclear submarine before being stopped by security.

Security had been tightened up as a result of this recent break-in, and within seconds of our coach arriving at the Peace Camp, a police Range Rover zoomed up to take our details, and tailed us closely for the rest of our visit. When we stopped outside the North Gate of the base to hand in a letter to the Navy Commander in charge of the base, a friendly meeter-and-greeter police officer chatted with us while another police officer took non-stop photos of us, which felt quite intimidating. When our coach turned up the side road leading to the Coulport nuclear weapons store, the Range Rover swung in front of us again and we were told in no uncertain terms to turn around.

From the viewpoint at the top of the hill overlooking the loch, we saw the black top of a submarine, and had to imagine how large the rest of it was, hidden under the water. There was another sub hiding behind a large building, whose top we could just get a peek of. I am only too aware of what could happen if the 40 or so nuclear warheads on one of these submarines were ever unleashed: the millions of direct casualties, the radiation poisoning, the catastrophic impact on the climate resulting from soot in the atmosphere. I was also aware of the very real possibility of an accident at the base, so I was quite relieved when it was time to drive back to Edinburgh. Only the week before, the government apologised to locals nearby about the 23 explosions at Coulport weapons depot that were ‘part of an exercise’, and a radiation leak on a nuclear submarine only came to light last month following two years of secrecy.

The next day, our Medact organisers had arranged things so that we could be there at the start of Scottish CND’s Spring Walk, which would be making its way from the Scottish Parliament to Faslane over the next few days. Despite the pouring rain, there were dozens of people outside the Parliament building with banners and flags, and it was moving and inspiring to hear passionate speeches from members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs) of different stripes all declaring their determination to rid Scotland of the scourge of nuclear weapons (which made me realise how rarely I have heard any English politicians speaking like this).

Feeling a little sheepish about leaving the Spring Walkers heading off into the unrelenting rain, the Medact group ducked inside the Scottish Parliament building to join a meeting of the Cross Party Group on Nuclear Disarmament. Dr Judith McDonald spoke first, outlining Medact’s history of activity in opposition to nuclear weapons and reflecting on her visits to Hiroshima for the IPPNW (International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War) congress, and to Oslo for the ICAN Campaigners Forum. By emphasising the humanitarian concern over the impossibility of any useful medical response to the devastation caused by nuclear explosion, she said that medical practitioners can play a crucial role in advocating abolition. The next speaker Dr Helen Zealley, a former Director of Public Health, described how she had been active in the formation of the Edinburgh MCANW group, and said we need to highlight to the healthcare audience and the general public that the urgency of the nuclear issue remains with us.

Up next, I explained that ICAN had been established in 2007 by the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), and that the humanitarian approach we pursue is essentially a medical one advocating prevention as the only cure. Just as the smoking ban only came into law following new evidence about the dangers of passive smoking, so new evidence about the devastating effects of nuclear weapons on non-nuclear-weapons States empowers the latter to demand a legal ban. With campaigners in over 90 countries in a coalition of more than 350 NGOs, ICAN argues that it’s time to put nuclear weapons on the same footing as biological and chemical weapons with a global treaty clearly banning any use or possession. I paid tribute to the way in which Scots have put the issue of nuclear weapons at the heart of the debate about what sort of society they want, and that their firm rejection sets a great example to the rest of the UK, and to other nuclear armed States.

Discussion with the seven MSPs at the meeting included making more connections with environmental concerns, and raising awareness among young people through education and social media. Chair Bill Kidd MSP, in his concluding remarks, spoke of the importance of ICAN in taking things forward, eloquently linking the Scottish campaign to be free of nuclear weapons to global efforts to bring about a treaty banning them once and for all.