Defending an independent Scotland

The consequences of independence for Scotland’s defence have received heavyweight attention in a report published by the Scotland Institute. While this is clearly a defence establishment viewpoint, it is interesting because defence, Trident in particular, has been one of the selling points for independence on the left.


The Scotland Institute brought together an impressive panel of experts chaired by Major-General Andrew Mackay, a Scot who served in the army for 27 years and commanded a Task Force in Afghanistan. In the report’s foreword, he said: “I cannot see how slicing up a competent and well established military will aid either the United Kingdom or an independent Scotland. Indeed, I see very real risks to the people of Scotland, be it from the loss of jobs and the local economic impact that the inevitable removal of the Faslane naval base would bring, the huge costs necessary to start building the armed forces from afresh, the loss of access to sensitive intelligence materials and the inevitable dilution in the quality and number of the armed forces of this small island, which to date have had such a profound effect upon the course of world events.”

The report’s key arguments include:

·      Independence case is based on the flawed argument that the assets based here defend Scotland. They are part of integrated UK armed forces.

·      Scotland would need to reinvigorate the Roysth naval base, not Faslane as it’s on the wrong coast.

·      The loss of economies of scale would result in poor value and a notional defence force.

·      A limited international role would make a Scottish defence force an unattractive proposition for recruits.

·      Creating a new intelligence service would be hugely expensive and ineffective.

·      Cyberattack is a major threat, but it would take £billions to replicate current arrangements.

·      Dispute over Trident bases would make accession to NATO difficult.

·      A notional defence force would result in the dismantling of the defence industries costing thousands of jobs.

As the report sets out, it is difficult to assess what Scotland might buy for the SNPs planned £2.5bn budget without knowing how much it will need to spend on procurement. That sum is higher, at 1.7% to 2% of GDP, than the average NATO country spending (1.6%). However, it will also have considerable reorganisation costs and the equipment budget is likely to be about the cost of one submarine per annum. The planned 15,000 personnel would make the defence force one of the smallest in Europe – a significant constraint on international deployment.  In essence, it will probably buy a territorially focused defence force shorn of high-end capabilities.

Now a small, even if expensive, armed forces might not be of much concern to most on the left – as will be the lack of capacity to engage in international adventures such as Iraq. However, the impact on the conventional defence industry and the intelligence and cyberattack capacity is not so easily dealt with. High added value technology industries are not going to base themselves in a country so poorly defended and defence industries will go where the procurement possibilities are.

 The chapter on Trident is one of the weaker parts of the paper, but the NATO chapter is more interesting. Being a non-nuclear state is not an issue in itself where it not for the fact that Scotland is already a base for nuclear weapons. This may complicate accession negotiations and at the very least delay the removal of existing weapons. All the more so given NATO’s enlargement policy that requires new members to support, “the essential role nuclear weapons play in the alliances strategy of war prevention”. And please, let’s not drift into the absurd argument that Scotland somehow ‘retains’ NATO membership, or the EU for that matter.

In conclusion, this report exposes the limitations of the SNPs current defence policy.  As in other policy areas they seek to satisfy everyone and end up pleasing no one. You can have a small territorial defence force, but it doesn’t go with high-end defence industries and the consequential job losses. They have to decide which it is going to be. Disposing of Trident is undoubtedly one of the big gains from independence, but many remain sceptical that NATO membership may at best delay implementation of this plan.

More work needed on defence in the White Paper and this report is a good starting point for anyone who wants to understand the issues. As long as you remember that it is a defence establishment perspective.

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