Response to most common arguments against Scotland Institute’s Defence Report


By Dr Azeem Ibrahim

Monday saw the publication of the Scotland Institute’s flagship report on Defence and Security in an Independent Scotland. The report is the most comprehensive study to date on the subject and was covered extensively across major publications making the front pages of both The Times and Scotland on Sunday.

By Dr Azeem Ibrahim

Monday saw the publication of the Scotland Institute’s flagship report on Defence and Security in an Independent Scotland. The report is the most comprehensive study to date on the subject and was covered extensively across major publications making the front pages of both The Times and Scotland on Sunday.

We interviewed and took contributions from former Secretaries of Defence, Generals, Admirals, Air Commodores, senior officials at NATO and the EU as well as dozens of top defence academics. 

To ensure its academic robustness and neutrality we asked two of the leading defence scholars in the UK to independently review our methodology and findings: Professor Sir Hew Strachan (Oxford) and Professor Brian Holden Reid (Director of War Studies, Kings College London).  

Since publication a number of criticisms have been leveled at the report. This is excellent news. It means that one of the principal aims of the Institute and the report – fostering a lively and evidence-based debate – is being fulfilled.

However, it seems most of the critics did not actually bother reading the report as it addresses most of their arguments. Here are the most common and their rebuttals.

Q: Scotland does not actually need a large military budget as we don’t wish to get involved in foreign wars and are hardly likely to get invaded anytime soon.

A. If the SNP’s post independence plans were to have a ‘homeland security’ approach to defence – no force projection or international missions, that may be a reasonable and realistic approach as Scotland does not face territorial threats nor is it surrounded by hostile nations. A case could be made that in such a situation all that would be needed is an effective coast guard, reliable police force, good intelligence etc. No membership of NATO would be required as Article 42.7 of the Lisbon Treaty provides EU States with collective security.

But that proposal is not on the table. It is not the policy of any major party. And it is certainly not the SNP’s policy. In their 2009 paper “Your Scotland, Your Voice” they are clear that an independent Scotland will “help to prevent and resolve conflicts and war anywhere in the world” and “further peaceful development in the world…” “like those in the Balkans” – a NATO mission.

They also suggest they would “actively participate in the European Security and Defence Policy of the European Union.” And a 2012 SNP Conference resolution is clear that an independent Scotland under the SNP would participate in UN and EU missions, requiring “military capabilities, including a cyber security and intelligence infrastructure”. At their last party conference, the SNP reiterated their commitment to seek NATO membership.

This clearly implies that the SNP desire an independent Scotland to be capable of contributing to missions conducted far afield and project force globally (as well as the Balkans and the Middle East the EU operates a number of missions in Africa)

If you want a homeland security defence posture, the SNP is not your party.

Q: Scotland would inherit defence assets from the UK – your report makes it sounds like Scotland would have to start from scratch.

A: This argument is based on a simple misconception: that Scotland would automatically inherit any assets from the UK. It would not. This is one of the questions our report looked into at length. All military assets in Scotland legally belong to the UK government and if Scotland were to inherit anything it would only be by virtue of negotiations, not automatic inheritance. With defence cuts and an over stretched military, Westminster is hardly likely to give away its prized assets very easily. 

Q: The SNP’s proposed annual defence budget of £2.5 billion would be £500 million more than the UK currently spends in Scotland on defence.

A: This is based on a misconception that countries and regions ‘get their fair share’ of defence according to what they spend. The UK does not organise its defence posture on the needs of each region but as a whole. Defence can only ever be collective.

Arguing that Scotland gets a raw deal from the UK’s defence spending is like arguing that one part of Scotland – Renfrewshire, say, or Leith – would ‘get a raw deal’ from defence spending in an independent Scotland. The reality is that in the same way that the radio and radar stations in the Outer Hebrides and Shetlands are not there just to keep the islanders secure, the assets and capabilities in Scotland are not just there for Scotland’s use, but to play their part in defending the whole of the UK. When it comes to defence policy, these kind of claims do not make sense.

Q: A post-independence budget would be adequate as it is comparable to similar sized countries like Denmark and Norway.

A: There are two problems with this line of attack. The first is that Norway and Denmark both spent a great deal on the big initial costs of defence equipment and infrastructure during the Cold War and are reaping the benefits today (EG Norway has 58 F16s and Denmark has 30 with Norway just having ordered 52 F35 Joint Strike Fighters at a cost of 10.6 billion dollars).

The second is that Scotland would have to spend a great deal in ‘startup costs.’ To approach current levels of defence that would have to include a new defence academy, a defence research establishment, reinvigorating the Rosyth base so that we have two naval bases, a new Scottish Ministry of Defence, and so on.

Expectations that we could achieve a military par with these nations are over optimistic.

Q: An independent Scotland would still be able to retain defence jobs – to say otherwise is just scaremongering.

A: An honest assessment suggests otherwise. Over 15,000 jobs in Scotland depend on the defence industry.  Labour’s 2005 Terms of Business Agreement Defence Industrial strategy guarantees a minimum level of orders to build Royal Navy ships to keep the yards viable. This agreement has been extant under the Coalition government.

The MOD is currently reluctant to sign a contract to build thirteen Type 26 Frigate on the Clyde until after the referendum as they would not be keen on contracting a foreign country where they would not have full freedom of movement.

In the unlikely event the contract went to open tender, the Clyde yards would face stiff competition from the likes of Poland and South Korea.

Best case scenario would be for an independent Scotland to have a very pro-active defence industrial strategy to make up for lost orders.

A Scottish defence equipments budget would, according to RUSI, likely be between 272 and 336 million pounds per annum. At the very high end it could reach 1 billion – the cost of one Type 45 Class Destroy.

The worst-case scenario would be the wholesale dismantling of the defence industry.

Q: After independence Scotland will get rid of the nuclear weapons in Scotland.

A: Getting rid of Trident implies that the UK is able to relocate them. At the moment there are only three navel bases outside Scotland which could house them: Barrow (Cumbria), Milford Haven (Pembrokeshire) and Devonport (Devon). All three are unsuitable for a variety of reasons (not deep water ports, near gas plants etc).

Most likely scenario is that a new facility will have to be constructed which could take up to twenty years. The UK will therefore likely lease HMNB Clyde from the new Scottish government and in such a scenario both sides will have to compromise. The UK by basing is strategic nuclear deterrent in a foreign country and the SNP by allowing Trident to remain until it can be relocated.

We are delighted to see such a robust and evidence-led debate on the effect of independence on Scottish defence. The SNP is the party that is advocating significant constitutional change. It is therefore incumbent upon them to provide evidence as to why that change is desirable and workable. As our report has shown, so far their post independence defence policy is critically wanting.