Unsafe Shores: Trident and Coastal Security in the BBC’s Vigil (2021)

by Emily Alder

[Warning: plot spoilers]

Since its establishment in the 1980s as a replacement for Polaris, Trident, the UK’s nuclear deterrent, has been the subject of political and environmental controversies. Debates relate to nuclear disarmament and the risks associated with nuclear deterrent programmes generally, and to the particular locations of Trident’s bases in Scotland. As a UK programme housed, and which arguably can only be housed, in Scottish waters, Trident is also one of the thornier problems in discussions about Scottish independence.

My subject here is Trident’s entanglements with politics, local communities, and coastal environments as presented in the BBC’s Vigil (2021), a drama in the genre of crime investigation television that deploys coastal Gothic tropes. Vigil is set partly on the eponymous nuclear submarine, and partly on the Clyde coast and in towns west of Glasgow. At the start of this six-episode series, the death of a Scottish sailor aboard Vigil quickly becomes a murder investigation. In the process, one of the two lead characters, DCI Amy Silva (Suranne Jones), unravels a conspiracy aiming to expose the inefficacy of the UK’s nuclear deterrent and force its decommissioning.

Silva’s investigation aboard the submarine is assisted by DS Kirsten Longacre (Rose Leslie) on land, whose trail leads her to the peace camp at Faslane and a protester, Jade Antoniak (Lauren Lyle), the daughter of a Scottish MP opposed to Trident. Jade is later drowned on the Clyde shore. The series’ events and settings on the Clyde, along its sea lochs, and deep in off-shore waters emphasise the vulnerability of Britain’s geographic and social peripheries. Although the purpose of Trident is to safeguard (inter)national security, in the plot of Vigil the coast and coastal waters are not safe spaces for ordinary people who live and work there. Produced in the 2020s, a moment at which Trident and its possible replacement are under scrutiny, the series puts questions about Trident’s future in dialogue with questions of Scottish political, legal, and social autonomy.

Vigil and Trident

The ‘Vigil’ of the title is the name of a nuclear submarine, implicitly named after the Vigilant, one of the four Vanguard-class submarines carrying Britain’s controversial nuclear deterrent Trident. These submarines are equipped with US Trident D5 ballistic missiles (SLBM) and were intended to operate up to the 2020s. A 2006 estimate put a replacement between £20 billion and £76 billion.1

Trident’s opposers argue that the risks associated with nuclear deterrents of catastrophic humanitarian and climatic effects far outweigh the arguments in their favour. Phillip Webber, writing about the climatic and humanitarian impacts of actually using Trident, notes that

for the UK, the reality is that Trident does not increase the country’s security. Trident poses the risk that its use would cause devastating harm to the UK itself as well as to many non-targeted non-nuclear states across the globe. Its continued deployment and the UK Government’s deterrence stance promote a dangerously misleading view of the scientific reality.2

From this perspective, the rationale for having Trident was always political, not scientific, and relies precariously on the scientific reality remaining irrelevant: as the UK’s nuclear deterrent Trident’s success depends on its never being used – and on its secrecy. Vigil, and its real-world namesake Vigilant, make visible the role of Trident in safekeeping Britain (and the world) every moment. There must always be, 24/7, 365 days a year, an unlocatable nuclear submarine loaded with missiles somewhere in the waters or the threat is ineffective.

Vigil dramatises Trident’s entanglements with politics, local communities, and coastal environments. The series engages with questions of national security and political relations between Scotland and Britain, which play out in the off-shore waters traversed by the submarine and along the coast of the Clyde where Trident is based. Although never named, the series’ settings include the coastal town of Greenock and the peace camp next to the naval base of Faslane on the Gare Loch, and a number of other stretches of Clyde shoreline. These shores are haunted by the spectre of nuclear catastrophe through accident, misfire, or attack, and even if Trident’s warheads landed far from Scotland, the consequences would be inescapable.

Gare Loch north of Glengair Looking across the loch to Faslane Naval Base.
wfmillar / Gare Loch north of Glengair / CC BY-SA 2.0

Vigil and Politics

The word ‘vigil’ has other meanings too, of time spent awake and on watch or waiting.

The symbolic significance of Trident in Scottish independence discourse is highlighted by the following reflections made in 2014 in the harrowing aftermath of the Independence Referendum:

It’s hard to find words to say how we feel after the Referendum vote last Thursday. To say we feel gutted and deeply saddened seems hardly adequate, but there is no point in pretending otherwise. And we feel this, of course, not just for ourselves, but for the tens of thousands of our fellow citizens who really thought that we had a once-in-a-lifetime chance to try a new way of living and working together, which might even offer a way forward for the many, many thousands in the other parts of these islands who want the same as we do, or something very similar.

But it didn’t happen. […]

We joined about 80 people on Saturday, from the Scottish Peace Network, to hold a short Vigil at the gates of the Nuclear Submarine Base at Faslane, to recommit ourselves to the campaign to remove from Scottish, and hopefully from British, waters, these weapons of mass destruction against which we, with so many others, have struggled for decades. This was a healing moment, as it helped us to remember that we are still engaged in specific actions for justice and peace – and we were very grateful for the opportunity.3

So, why go to Faslane to hold a ‘vigil’ for Scottish independence?

In 1982, a peace camp was established near the Faslane base. It became a permanent home to protesters against Polaris and then Trident and against nuclear weapons more broadly.4 From the early years of the camp its stance was non-confrontational, and put effort into talking to MoD employees. One activist recalled:

It was not the workers at the camp but the jobs that they were doing that the people at the camp were opposed to and it was important to try and put this across to the workers, many of whom were initially hostile and suspicious, seeing the camp as a personal attack. Vigils at the gates were a regular occurrence which could range from greeting the workers as they arrived by busload every morning to going down late at night to talk with sailors coming back from the pub.5 [emphasis mine]

The word and concept of ‘vigil’, then, implies a peaceful, patient, dialogic, fair, even compassionate form of activism at the heart of many people’s commitment to both independence and disarmament. These are values shared by Amy Silva and Kirsten Longacre in their own commitment to justice for the people and principles affected by the events of Vigil. However, as noir detective narratives often show, justice and truth are murky when in political waters.

Three answers, then, suggest themselves to the question of why Trident and Scottish independence are so intertwined: the limits of devolution, geography, and economics.

In the 2014 article quoted above, the author relates the campaign against Trident to the campaign for independence, emphasising the commitment to building a better world that both represent. However, the devolved powers of the Scottish Government do not extend to Trident’s management – although they are obliged to support it. In an independent Scotland under the current government, the situation could be rather different: the SNP’s website states that ‘The SNP has never and will never support the retention or renewal of Trident. We believe that nuclear weapons are immoral, ineffective and expensive.’ They argue that Trident’s billions are better spent on the social good.

Further, Trident couldn’t realistically go anywhere else because of the deep waters and access to the Atlantic offered by the Clyde sea lochs. There are ‘few if any feasible alternative sites [to Faslane and Coulport] for deploying nuclear submarines in England or Wales’.6 So, the particular material conditions of Scotland’s coast are inextricable from the politics of Trident. If an independent Scotland should refuse to host Trident, what then?

Yet hosting Trident is not all bad. The MoD presence around Faslane and Loch Long is perceived to benefit local communities by providing secure employment and contributing to the region’s prosperity. At the same time, however, the secrecy and security surrounding the MoD bases limits other kinds of economic development. A report in 2006 noted that

Though the Faslane and Coulport bases provide some local jobs, they are limited, as attested by the depressed state of towns nearby. Because of the Navy’s activities and need for security, the area cannot be significantly developed for other purposes. Several MSPs expressed the view that jobs would be more plentiful if the area were economically revitalised, which could only happen if the naval bases – particularly Faslane – were closed and the Scottish local authorities became free to develop other options, including leisure and sport.7

This means that the Faslane peace camp protest is not just about nuclear disarmament for environmental reasons. It is also about the lived experience of people and communities, which makes sense when we consider that questions of environmental justice are always about people as well as the physical world. The protestors, as we saw above, recognised the distinction between the MoD as an institution and the lives of the naval base’s local workers. In Vigil, the distinction is recognised in the relationship between protestor Jade Antoniak and murdered sailor Craig Burke (Martin Compston), while the union of Scotland and England is recognised in the romance and working relationship between Amy Silva and Kirsten Longacre.

Vigil and Coastal Gothic

Amy’s submarine investigation is paralleled by Kirsten’s on land, and the narrative cuts regularly between aboard Vigil and events on the coast. To an extent, Vigil lends itself easily to nautical Gothic readings. Many scenes invoke some familiar oceanic and Gothic tropes: verticality and depth, claustrophobia and heightened psychological states, and the replay of trauma. Yet these traits are centred on only one of the two protagonists, Amy, who spends almost all the series on board the submarine, far out at sea. A coastal Gothic reading also needs to account for the onshore events and the relationship between the shore and the boat. Vigil’s narrative construction and editing choices encourage attention to that relationship. Episode 2 (27.50-28.56), for examples, shows two juxtaposed scenes that cut from Amy in the submarine to Kirsten driving to ‘Dunloch’ with a view of the (real) Gare Loch and Faslane behind her. In the first scene, Amy is locked in her cabin by a frightened Prentice (Adam James), in shots that emphasises claustrophobia and confinement, while the second by contrast presents wide, open expanses of land, sea, and sky.

A coastal Gothic reading of Vigil notices that breadth as well as depth is important, that the story has both a vertical and a horizontal axis. I will focus here, therefore, primarily on Kirsten’s strand of the narrative and her movements around the Clyde coast. In the coastal strand of the story, the series deploys Gothic tropes of instability, liminality, and inbetweenness that register particularly effectively in coastal spaces.

The plot of Vigil ultimately comes down on the side in favour of maintaining Trident, but along the way it raises significant questions about Trident’s efficacy and moral and political justification. Some of these questions are raised explicitly by characters, but some are more subtly embedded in the narrative. For example, the deaths that occur demonstrate that despite Trident’s purpose, protection, Scottish coastal waters are not safe spaces for the people who live there. Not only is Burke murdered on Vigil, but in the opening scene, a trawler is dragged down and the crew drowned when the net snags on what turns out to be a prowling Russian submarine, explicitly echoing the tragedy of trawler Antares, sunk by a Royal Navy submarine in 1990. In the past, Amy has lost her partner to drowning after their car crashes into a Clyde sea loch; and Jade Antoniak is murdered in the shallow waters of a local beach. I will illustrate with a short examination of the latter scene.

Jade is the daughter of an MP who is committed to ending Trident, and a committed protester living at the peace camp. Through the fate of this character in particular, the social, political, environmental, and material worlds are shown to be entangled. Jade is drowned after being lured to meet someone she thinks will help her ultimate cause – the removal of Trident from Scotland – and is found by Kirsten.

In the first scene, Jade waits alone in the gloaming on a shore road (figure 1). Isolated in a liminal space physically and figuratively, her unease is shown by the light, the emptiness, and her visible anxiety: the camera zooms in on her scared face as she watches a car arrive. She makes a worried phone-call to Kirsten, but technology has betrayed her. Her fate remains suspended in uncertainty when the episode cuts away – we have to fill in what happens in the gap.

Figure 1: Jade scared, Episode 2 52.12
Figure 2 Kirsten finds Jade drowned, Episode 2 56.18

In the second scene, Kirsten finds Jade in the water, face down (figure 2). Here the young woman has become a piece of waterlogged coastal detritus, her discarded body suggesting contempt for the shoreline environment as well as for the person. As with Burke and the trawler’s crew, Jade’s death is collateral damage; hers is an expendable life for the conspirators, reminding of the way nuclear deterrence must put aside concerns of socio-environmental suffering in order to be effective.

Scottish coastal waters are shown to be unsafe shores – yet the point of Trident is to ensure national security. In this way, Vigil relates debates over the value of Trident to debates over the union of the United Kingdom and the movement for Scottish independence. Trident may appear to function effectively for the British government as a deterrent, may be believed to protect Britain and other NATO countries, but in Vigil it fails to protect people in Scotland, whose bodies lie in its wake.

Nevertheless, the series ends with the UK’s nuclear deterrent upheld. Ultimately, Jade’s MP father Patrick Cruden (Stephen McCole) is forced to compromise his principles. Though he has in his hands all the information he needs to discredit Trident, he is pressured by the MoD not to expose it, persuaded that Russia is a bigger threat than the risks of nuclear catastrophe. Implicitly, Cruden is also compromising the principle of his commitment to Scottish independence, yielding to a Unionist position on Trident for the sake of the greater good. Vigil thus ultimately suggests that political solutions lie in compromise, reinforced by the romance subplot in which the English Amy and Scottish Kirsten are reunited by the end. Along the way, however, Vigil also recognises that both Trident and the Union may look better from the centre than from the peripheries, exposing multiple sides of these debates and allowing space for considering them. Vigil makes visible the factors that make Trident a very difficult problem to solve. What to do about the UK’s nuclear deterrent is not purely a political, military, social, or environmental matter – it is all of them. The series asks viewers to understand and reflect on this complexity and on the compromises at stake in any decision about Trident’s future.

References:

  1. Rebecca Johnson, Nicola Butler, and Stephen Pullinger, Worse than irrelevant? British Nuclear Weapons in the 21st Century (London: Acronym Institute for Disarmament Diplomacy, 2006).
  2. Philip Webber, ‘The Climatic and Humanitarian Impacts.’ In World in Chains: nuclear weapons, militarisation and their impact on society, edited by Angie Zelter (Edinburgh: Luath Press, 2014), p. 42.
  3. Molly Harvey and John Harvey, ‘After the Vote’, OpenDemocracy, 26 September 2014. https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/shine-a-light/after-vote, accessed 26/5/23.
  4. Cat Hemlock, ‘Trashing the Tridents: Tales From Faslane Peace Camp’. Earth First! 30 Jun 2002, p. 10. Proquest.com & Catherine Eschle, ‘Faslane Peace Camp and the Political Economy of the Everyday,’ Globalizations 13:6 (2016).
  5. Faslane: Diary of a peace camp, written by Members of the Faslane Peace Camp (Edinburgh: Polygon, 1984), p. 14.
  6. Willam Walker and Malcolm Chalmbers, quoted in Johnson, Butler, and Pullinger, p. 31.
  7. Johnson, Butler, and Pullinger, p. 31.

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