Scottish Independence and Four Unanswered Defence Issues


With the vote on independence a little over a week away the most recent two polls indicate that the double digit lead held by the No campaign has fallen significantly to roughly 6%. The Yes campaign has the inertia and it looks as though the vote on 18 September will be close. After losing the first debate with Alasdair Darling, Alex Salmond was deemed to have clearly won the second debate between the leaders of the two campaigns and the polls are reflecting this.

Throughout the campaign defence issues have featured and there is a good deal of disagreement between the various commentators about what independence would mean for Scotland. (I have addressed some of these in an article recently published in International Affairs.) There is virtually no comment about what it might mean for the rest of the United Kingdom. So what is agreed, what is disputed and what has yet to be addressed?

First, the nuclear question. It is agreed that public opinion in Scotland is generally more opposed to the United Kingdom’s strategic nuclear deterrent. This may be because the operational bases for servicing, loading and unloading of the missiles and warheads are located in Scotland – Faslane and Coulport. It is also agreed that these bases provide a significant revenue stream for the local community hence the Scottish Nationalists propose that in place of the nuclear submarines it will locate Scotland’s own Permanent Joint Headquarters. It is also agreed that NATO is a nuclear alliance and that the issue of nuclear basing will feature as part of the discussions about Scotland’s membership of NATO (more below).

What has not been agreed is a timetable for the removal of the bases – initially the SNP indicated it should be within the first term of an independent Scottish parliament. Scottish CND have indicated that they believe that the system could be far quicker but that this would mean that the rest of the United Kingdom would have to cease being a nuclear armed power. In the course of the campaign Alex Salmond has indicated that the deadline for withdrawal might be extended as part of the division of assets that would follow a vote in favour of independence. The cost and practicalities of effectively replacing the Faslane, and more importantly Coulport, have not been agreed and remain the subject of conjecture.

What has not been discussed at all is the issue of decommissioning the Royal Navy’s nuclear submarines. Currently those which have left service remain in storage at Devonport and Rosyth with no agreed long term solution whilst those currently in service will need to be decommissioned at some point in the future. Decommissioning costs have not been factored into the proposed Scottish defence budget and these might include the creation of a nuclear reprocessing facility in Scotland.

Second, Scotland’s membership of the European Union and NATO is disputed. The only thing that is agreed here is that there is disagreement. Legal and political opinion is split and Scotland’s future membership of either organisation and the basis of such membership remains what Donald Rumsfeld, the former US Secretary of Defense, has called Known unknowns.

In the case of NATO the SNP has historically been opposed to membership of NATO and there still remains a sizeable element of the SNP who would be opposed to membership if it was offered. It is also clear that opposition to Scottish membership of either organisation does not come from the rest of the United Kingdom but from other members of the respective organisations and there seems to be general agreement that the rest of the United Kingdom is likely to be supportive of Scottish membership.

In NATO the United Kingdom’s nuclear capability is important since it provides, along with the United States nuclear forces, the nuclear guarantee to the non-nuclear powers in NATO. None seem to want to rely solely on the United States whilst France has kept its nuclear forces outside NATO.

Thus a vote in favour of independence carries with it no guarantee of membership of either organisation. Equally, if there is a No vote and in the 2015 general election the Conservative Party or a coalition of the Conservatives and UKIP are elected there is likely to be a vote on the United Kingdom’s continuing membership of the European Union. Historically public opinion polls indicate that the Scottish and Welsh electorates are far more in favour of membership that their English counterparts and given the demographic imbalance between the four nations of the United Kingdom there is the real possibility that the English will force the other nations to leave the EU. In other words a vote against independence brings with it the prospect of a vote to leave the EU whilst a vote in favour of independence brings with it a hope for membership of both NATO and the European Union but no guarantee this will happen.

Third, Scotland’s armed forces and the use of force. The Yes campaign have promised no more ‘illegal’ wars and promised that an independent Scottish Parliament would have to approve the use of force. Under the current arrangements the use of Britain’s armed forces falls under the Royal Prerogative with parliament having no formal role. In practice, governments have sought a vote in the House of Commons where military action is planned and this was the case for Kosovo, Afghanistan and Libya. However, parliament has neither control over the rules of engagement that British forces operate under (in Germany these have to be approved by the Bundestag) nor does it have any control over the use of the armed forces in a crisis such as the evacuation of civilian personnel (e.g Sierra Leone (2000), Lebanon (2006), Libya (2011), South Sudan (2013)) or in the use of Special Forces (e.g., Iranian Embassy siege 1980). In terms of both Rules of Engagement and the use of the armed forces in a crisis there is no information on what would happen in an independent Scotland and the relationship of the monarchy to the armed forces is unresolved.

Fourth, the practicalities of dividing Britain’s armed forces have not been thought through. It is agreed that Britain’s armed forces have been created on a pan-United Kingdom basis. The practical arrangements of separating them, including their equipment and liabilities has not been resolved and the cost of this has not been calculated. What has been calculated is the cost of withdrawing the United Kingdom’s remaining forces from Germany (£1.8bn) and this may provide some indication of the cost.

The Yes campaign and various think-tanks have all developed ideas of what an independent Scotland’s armed forces might look like and all have assumed that Scotland would simply choose what it wants, but dividing the assets and liabilities will form part of a bargain and thus there is no guarantee that the proposals will bear any relationship to the reality of Scotland’s armed forces. Moreover, in the negotiations to join NATO, a Scottish government may well find itself having to make specific defence commitments such as to the Baltic air policing mission. What is clear is that there are major gaps in the current SNP proposals.

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