The biggest issue with an independent Scotland is defence policy

Backbencher October 15, 2013 1
The biggest issue with an independent Scotland is defence policy

Michael Jones highlights the problems associated with an independent Scottish defence policy.

This week, Whitehall published a paper entitled Scotland Analysis: Defence, reiterating the government’s unwavering position on the prospect of an independent Scotland:  ‘Scotland’s defence is best served by being part of the UK’. Political differences aside, this is reason enough for the preservation of the United Kingdom.

With less than a year to go before Scotland votes on independence, the government has set out to debunk any overly optimistic presumptions by Scottish ministers that establishing an independent defence infrastructure will be either low-cost or without difficulties. For all the many obstacles that stand in the way of independence, be they economic or social, none are more critical than the benefits of a unified defence structure.

For all the many obstacles that stand in the way of independence, be they economic or social, none are more critical than the benefits of a unified defence structure.

From an English perspective, there certainly appears to be the attitude in Holyrood of independence first, bureaucracy later. As the Whitehall paper points out, ‘an independent Scottish state would continue to face many of the same security threats as the continuing UK’, but without the same defence expenditure or manpower. Breaking with Westminster will not, as some Scottish politicians might think, absolve Scotland from the possibility of terrorism or maritime disputes over fishing/North Sea gas. Independence will not change the geopolitical reality of neighbouring a nuclear power and the associated risks that brings.

It is perhaps not a surprise that Whitehall has scoffed at the likely effectiveness of an independent Scottish military. After all, it has an inherent unionist agenda to which it must adhere. But it is also not difficult to see the extreme practical and logistical difficulties that Scotland would encounter in trying to divide military assets and determine the future of Scottish soldiers serving in the British Army. There is a long and illustrious joint military heritage that would have to be slowly divorced and the armed forces would undergo an enormous transformation.

The Scottish National Party (SNP) would like to see Scotland’s historic regiments re-fashioned in a new Scottish defence force, reinstating a series of units that were amalgamated into the singular Royal Regiment of Scotland in 2006. Traditional regiments that were contracted into battalions, such as the Black Watch, would be restored to their former glory in an army consisting of approximately 15,000 personnel. The entire defence budget would be in the region of £2.5 billion, much reduced from the UK’s current £34 billion. A navy would be deployed to patrol Scotland’s fishing and oil assets, and an air force would be on hand for quick-reaction defence.

The entire defence budget would be in the region of £2.5 billion, much reduced from the UK’s current £34 billion.

Nomenclature aside, this proposal has been criticised by Westminster as failing to answer decisive questions about logistics and execution. The Commons Defence Select Committee released a report last month to address some of these issues, stating that, besides an obvious maritime focus and pro-NATO stance, ‘we have found it very difficult to establish how the foreign and security policy of the SNP has informed its vision for a Scottish defence force.’ Particular criticism has fallen on plans ‘to acquire conventional submarines’, which would incur ‘considerable cost and risk’, and question marks over how, given ‘the available budget, [the SNP will] mount a credible air defence – let alone provide the additional…support aircraft’.

In fairness to the SNP, the government report has a distinctly patronising air, as if the civil servants who wrote it were sneering with glee as they went. Some form of autonomous defence force would of course be possible, but the concern is that plans in Scotland are far more ambitious than available budgets will allow.

The Defence Select Committee argues that much greater organisation is required by SNP bureaucrats if its plans are to come to fruition. The Committee concludes that ‘we are unconvinced that there is sufficient funding to support both the proposed Scottish defence force and to procure new equipment’, equating to a serious feasibility gap between ambition and financial reality.

Whilst it is likely that any serious threat to Scottish security would be swiftly met by intervention from Westminster, it must be remembered that independence will also bring inevitable reductions to the remaining British Army. In that sense, a reduced UK would not take kindly to assisting a wantaway Scotland. Defending as a whole what is currently the British Isles would become less coordinated and even an exploitable weakness.

Defending as a whole what is currently the British Isles would become less coordinated and even an exploitable weakness.

As the government points out, ‘Scotland benefits from the full range of UK defence capabilities and activities. These defend UK airspace, patrol the surrounding seas and help protect everyone in the UK against both natural and man-made threats.’ Like any good political marketing, it emphasises that ‘the UK has the resources and military capabilities to deal with multiple operations concurrently and is able to respond rapidly to support conflict prevention and resolution and humanitarian crises.’

On the other side of the coin, The Guardian has argued that a military of just 15,000 would ‘leave the SDF with frontline combat forces of 4,650 personnel, once the essential supporting logistics, engineers, signals and artillery units are added. That excludes navy and air force personnel’. In this regard, the SNP is at risk of selling Scotland short.

There is a practical consideration for Scottish voters ahead of next year’s referendum. Whilst the ‘Better Together’ campaign has been criticised for arguing against independence on the basis of patriotic sentiment such as ‘we passionately believe the best choice for our future is to remain a strong and proud nation’, it has a point.

Remaining British for the sake of it will hold little sympathy with many Scots, but equally risking Scotland’s considerable economic assets benefits no one. The question is not could Scotland be independent, but whether it should be. With the maintenance of the United Kingdom in its current form beyond 2014, perhaps with greater devolved powers and national autonomy, defence does not have to be compromised.

Scotland must seriously address the risks that lie in front of it; a proven union and the associated security benefits, or independence and the hazards of an austere defence arrangement.

Michael is a graduate of King’s College London, where he studied for an MA in International Relations. His areas of interest are British foreign and defence policy, Anglo-American relations, and Europe’s involvement in NATO. He is currently UK Editor at The World Outline.

Reddit this article ↓

twitter