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Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Independence and a Scottish Defence Force - Part 1

Already, in the initial referendum debate sorties, Unionist politicians and their supporters have pointed out areas where they feel the SNP have not provided enough information on what Independence will mean. One area regularly cited is Defence.

Whilst actually having some sympathy with the view that the Nationalists have yet to put some meat on the Defence bones , it is also fair to point out that we are only a few weeks into a thirty month process. More details will inevitably follow. Indeed, as the First Minister announced recently, the Independence ‘campaign’ will not begin until May – at the end of the Consultation period.

It doesn’t, however, require access to the SNP inner circle; crystal balls; or, even, many years of military experience at staff officer level to make a reasonable guess at how a Scottish Defence Force (as it is normally referred to) might look.

Those opposed to Independence claim that Scotland can’t afford to defend itself into the future. One wonders if they have ‘double-thunk’ into existence the belief that the £3.5 billion Scots currently contribute to UK defence budgets will continue to be siphoned off to Westminster? As official figures show, only £2.5 billion of that taxation is actually spent by the MOD back in Scotland. Another example of sharing the ‘risks and rewards’ of the Union. Apparently.

So, we have two options it seems.

The first is to maintain that current £2.5 billion level. Clearly, responsible MOD mandarins have concluded that this is the appropriate amount to be spent on the defence of north Britain – and they can be trusted with such crucial decisions, unlike that Scottish Mugabe and his disarming brethren. This, then, would free up £1 billion for other spending priorities in a renewed Scotland. Throw in that an Independent Scotland will no longer contribute to the £100 billion required over the next 30 years in replacing Trident and a Scottish exchequer saves a further £300 million every year.

Or, alternatively, we could spend the entire £3.5 billion and defend ourselves better than the Union currently does.

How to pay for the hardware in the first place then? Surely a massive capital expense for a fledgling Government. This, of course, is how the Westminster parties spin things.

Those same anti-Independence parties are conscientious in reminding us that an Independent Scotland cannot waltz away from the Union Scot-free, so to speak. We must take with us our share of UK National Debt, they say. And we shall. They are slightly less than conscientious in pointing out that this entitles us to an equivalent share of the assets accrued in running up that debt. And we shall take those too – in the process dismantling the disingenuous Unionist claims that our newly-independent state can’t afford the ‘kit’ to defend ourselves. Unfortunately for their argument, our ‘starter pack’ is already there and waiting. And it’s free because we’ve already paid for it!

Of course, the details of how the Union’s family heirlooms are divided will no doubt be the subject of protracted negotiation. Perhaps more protracted in Defence than in any other matter. An Independent Scottish state, though, should find itself in a reasonably strong bargaining position. In fact, it would be more accurate to say Scotland would find itself in a bloody strong bargaining position. That position can be summed up in five words: Her Majesty’s Naval Base Clyde.

HMNB Clyde is home to the United Kingdom’s strategic nuclear deterrent in the shape of the four Vanguard-class submarines on the Faslane-Gare Loch side of the base and the Trident nuclear warheads housed at Coulport which is over the hill on Loch Long. HMNB Clyde is also home to the new Astute-class submarines – the most advanced submarines in the world.

The SNP want to rid Scotland of the nuclear weapons and the submarines that launch them. The Scottish people overwhelmingly agree. The London Government are determined not only to retain them but, in fact, wish to replace them with an even more sophisticated, deadly and costly version. The seemingly insurmountable problem facing those parties and politicians who see these grotesque weapons as Britain’s membership card to the global top-table is that they have nowhere else to base them. Any alternatives currently being suggested are either impractical or breach Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaties. The only plausible way out for the UK would appear to be the construction of an alternative British site. This, it is agreed, would take about ten years. So, what to do, what to do…

Assuming the Scottish electorate vote for Independence there seems but one solution. It will be an imperfect one for all concerned but it is how the political horse-trading will resolve itself.

The new Scottish Government will lease HMNB Clyde to what remains of the UK for a reasonable period – let’s say 15 years – giving them sufficient time to prepare new facilities. The leaders of Scotland may be quite bullish in negotiating the price to be paid in return – such is the fundamental nature of Westminster’s and the MOD’s obsession on the nuclear weapons issue. One hesitates to speak in terms of negotiations with one side over the proverbial barrel but it is difficult to avoid. It seems clear that this one issue alone will make post-Independence discussions considerably less difficult than they may otherwise have been. Westminster will, in effect, have to make Edinburgh happy.

What, then, can they bring to the table in addition to their new helpful disposition?

Westminster might prefer to pay an annual financial stipend but any astute Scottish negotiator would reject such a notion – once a figure had been agreed for HMNB Clyde, the London Government could be as difficult as they like on all other matters.

One can imagine the share of national debt the new state would have to assume being up for discussion, along with North Sea oil and gas sector boundaries and, perhaps, a slightly more indulgent view relating to what share of the MOD’s conventional military materiel a new Scottish Defence Force might require – after all, we are relinquishing our paid-up share of the nuclear arsenal. In some areas this could allow Scotland to ask for, and receive, more than a purely ‘pro-rata’ share.

This article also appeared on the Newsnet Scotland site and is the first in a series I'm preparing looking at defence in an independent Scotland.

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