By a Newsnet reporter
The SNP have accused the anti-independence parties of being in denial as, just a day after the UK Government issued 4,000 redundancy notices to military personnel, Tory and LibDem Defence Ministers used the Commons Scottish Affairs Committee as a platform to scaremonger over Scotland’s defence industrial prospects.
SNP Westminster leader and Defence spokesperson Angus Robertson MP expressed regret that the Scottish Affairs Committee failed to use the opportunity to press the MoD over the longstanding decline in Scotland’s defence footprint or ask urgent questions over recent defence job losses.
Over the previous decade, Scotland has witnessed the loss of over 11,000 service or defence related jobs, and suffers a shortfall of over £5.6 billion in defence spending.
Despite UK taxpayers funding one of the most expensive armed services in the world, during 2011 the UK had the fourth largest defence expenditure in the world, Scotland’s defence footprint has been successively reduced over the years, leaving Scotland with an impoverished defence capability and fewer professional soldiers than much smaller and poorer nations.
Instead of taking evidence on whether Scotland can be safe and secure within the UK, the Committee heard from the UK Armed Forces Minister, the Lib Dem MP Nick Harvey, who used the committee to give a repeat airing to claims made recently by Conservative Defence Minister Philip Hammond, who had said that an independent Scotland would be forced to pay the rump-UK to decommission the Trident missile system and contribute to the cost of building a replacement base elsewhere.
Although Mr Hammond’s claims were ridiculed by anti-nuclear campaigners and dismissed by independent defence and legal experts, Mr Harvey asserted the claim to the Committee as fact.
For the SNP, Mr Robertson pointed out that the Committee failed to address the very real issue of the decline in Scotland’s defences under the UK, which has seen Scotland fall to almost the bottom of the European league table in terms of numbers of members of the armed forces per head of population. This is despite the fact that recruits to the UK armed forces come disproportionately from Scotland.
Figures from the National Institute of Strategic Studies show that there are now just over 3,200 army personnel based in Scotland, only slightly more than the personnel strength of the Estonian professional armed forces.
Estonia has a population lower than that of the greater Glasgow area. The figures for other European countries do not include conscripts in those countries which still have National Service. Estonia retains compulsory military service and in addition to its regular army the armed forces also dispose of over 2,700 conscripts.
Denmark and Ireland, with population sizes similar to Scotland, each have approximately 8,000 professional army personnel, as does Slovenia which has less than half Scotland’s population.
Only Latvia and Moldova have fewer professional army personnel per head of population than Scotland. Moldova retains conscription, while in Latvia all government services have been savagely cut in recent years as the post-Soviet state struggles to rebuild its ailing economy.
Even before the latest round of 4000 armed services redundancies has started to bite, Scotland lost 400 service personnel in the period between January and April 2012. The reduction in numbers comes despite the promise of former Defence Minister Liam Fox, made in July 2011, that the UK Government anticipated the return of up to 7,000 troops returning to Scotland from Germany.
Mr Robertson said:
“There is no surprise that a committee of anti-independence politicians, taking evidence from other anti-independence politicians, will talk down Scotland’s prospects. But, just a day after the UK Government made 4,000 military personnel redundant, people in Scotland will not be fooled by their scaremongering.
“Instead of confronting Tory Ministers on redundancies or the threatened cuts to our historic regiments, it is regrettable that this Commons Committee is only focused on talking down Scotland’s prospects. Ian Davidson’s partisan approach will do nothing to help the anti-independence parties.
“The starting point for this debate must be the legacy of decline in Scotland’s defence footprint, which has seen the loss of more than 11,000 defence jobs and a £5.6bn underspend in Scotland over the last decade.
“This time last year the MoD claimed Scotland would be benefiting from the return of up to 7,000 personnel currently based in Germany, and investment in new purpose-built barracks at Kirknewton, near Edinburgh. We now know defence jobs have been cut by almost 700 in just the last three months, and construction of the Kirknewton facility has been abandoned.
“Far from Scotland benefiting from a Union dividend, we have been hit again and again by a UK defence downturn. Small independent nations across Europe maintain armies much greater than the numbers currently based in Scotland after successive UK cuts – and yet our historic army units continue to face an uncertain future.
“Figures for European nations expose the nonsense of claims that an independent Scotland would not be capable of recruiting and maintaining a defence force. They show the threat to Scotland’s defence capabilities comes from successive UK Governments.
“The exact configuration of Scottish Defence Forces will be shaped by the outcome of a strategic defence review, but we can look to our European neighbours of comparable size for an indication of how the defence landscape of an independent Scotland will look.
“Indeed, our northern European neighbours all maintain appropriate military capabilities including fast jets, ocean going vessels and highly trained personnel. There is no question that Scotland could easily match those capabilities.”