Former British Vice Admiral John McAnally entered into the Scottish constitutional debate the other day by warning of the “dire” defence implications for Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom should Scotland opt for independence.
He echoed Philip Hammond, the UK defence secretary, who proclaimed at the recent Scottish Conservative Conference that an independent Scotland, “could not hope to develop the same level of protection and resilience” as it enjoys as part of the UK.
Do such dire warnings hold any substance? It is worth reflecting on the wider defence and security debate over the past two years. The UK government has emphasised British power projection, size, international clout; and the safety and international reach that Scotland enjoys as part of the UK.
This highlights the discrepancies in power between a larger state such as the UK and the kind of smaller state Scotland would be. It contrasts sharply with the arguments on the yes side, where the Scottish government and Scottish National Party have tried to demonstrate the importance of defence cooperation with other states, including the remaining UK.
They have highlighted areas where they believe they can bring expertise and strength to existing security and defence partnerships – not least maritime surveillance and increased naval capability in Scottish and regional waters (both have suffered from UK defence cuts in recent years).
Could Scotland defend itself?
On the question of whether Scotland could defend itself, there is a growing consensus that it could, even if people may disagree if it should. The Scottish government has been particularly interested in the experiences of its Nordic neighbours, especially Norway and Denmark. As it has pointed out, if other small European states can defend themselves, why Scotland should somehow be unable to do so? It is a pretty strong argument.
To defend oneself costs money, of course. A new Scottish defence force would face start-up costs and require a substantial annual budget – £2.5 billion according to the independence white paper.
Obviously there will be challenges associated with creating a new defence structure, but too often cost questions have been raised as if Scotland does not contribute already. According to Scottish government figures, the £3.1bn it pays is significantly more than the £2bn spent in Scotland. In other words, the £2.5bn figure for Scottish spending in the white paper would represent an increase.
Of course, Scottish taxes pay for UK-wide defence too. And the percentage spent in Scotland reflects UK-wide strategic thinking. This is perfectly understandable from a UK perspective, but the suggestion that Scotland profits from a seamless integrated defence network is specious at best.
In short, Scotland would be able to pay for its defence. Would it have to make the same sort of hard decisions on equipment and priorities as every other state? Yes. But this is a long way from suggesting Scotland could not afford to defend itself.
The NATO question
Like other small states, the Scottish government intends to become a member of NATO. This will provide it with a security guarantee that it could not get on its own – something that is true for every member, including the UK.
So would Scotland be allowed membership? This is complicated slightly by the Scottish government’s anti-nuclear stance, and made worse by the proposal to ban nuclear weapons in a written constitution.
But in reality, it would not be a dealbreaker. Indeed, there are several NATO members that share Scotland’s stance. Being anti-nuclear does not preclude membership on its own, and the decision to sign NATO’s Strategic Concept, thus accepting that the alliance is a nuclear club, withdraws the biggest barrier to membership.
Admittedly it is a potential issue that the UK nuclear deterrent is based in Scottish territory at Faslane in Argyll. If Scotland were to force unilateral disarmament on the continuing UK, it is conceivable that this could jeopardise NATO membership.
It would be prudent for Scotland to allow the shrunken UK sufficient time to find new arrangements. But there is no reason to think that Scotland would choose to present the UK with a nuclear fait accompli on this matter.
British clout withstanding?
The concerns about the UK’s international standing also look exaggerated. The remaining UK would probably inherit the permanent seat on the UN Security Council. It would remain a significant military player with a much larger defence budget than most European states.
There is certainly no appetite within the Scottish government to seek to reduce the UK’s defence in any post-yes negotiations – quite the opposite in fact. It sees the UK as its closest would-be partner and would cooperate so long as it was in both states’ interests.
Cooperation is a normal and increasing element of transatlantic defence. It is not quite as difficult as some proponents of the union have suggested.
An independent Scotland would require time to configure its forces and build its capabilities. But in the long term, one can reasonably argue that British security could be enhanced by independence - depending on decisions by the rest of the UK as much as those taken in Scotland, of course.