UNITED24 - Make a charitable donation in support of Ukraine!


Defence Committee
Written evidence from Dr Michael John Williams, Reader in International Relations, Department of Politics & International Relations, Royal Holloway, University of London

An Introduction to the Defence Implications of Scottish Independence

This evidence is submitted as independent analysis and does not necessarily reflect the views of the University of London, Royal Holloway, University of London or the Department of Politics & IR at RHUL.

1. A “yes vote for Scottish independence for the United Kingdom will have several implications for defense in both the UK and Scotland after Scottish withdrawal and for the newly-independent Scotland. While the event will be traumatic for the United Kingdom, the UK should be able to withdraw from the union with Scotland with little long term effect on the defense posture of HMG while an independent Scotland will need to manage the severe costs of establishing military command and control structures, capabilities as well as intelligence assets. The disintegration of a country and dissection of armed forces is not without precedence in recent history. The partition of India, the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the break-up of Czechoslovakia all offer insights into some of the general problems that may be faced by a dissolution of the union. The Scottish Government has thus far failed to offer a comprehensive plan for Scottish defense following independence. This brief review of the key issues based on past cases serves to highlight areas for further study in both London and Edinburgh, so that in the event of Scottish independence both sides can plan accordingly to maintain their respective defense interests.

2. Bases—there are currently seven UK military bases located in Scotland (RNB Faslane & Coulport, Fort George, Kinloss, RAF Lossiemouth, Arbroath, Leuchars and Kirknewton). As a result of the new Strategic Defense and Security Review (SDSR), this will be cut to three in the coming years. The most critical of these bases, post-impendence, will be the Royal Navy base at Faslane, the home of the UK’s nuclear deterrent and the future home of the new fleet of nuclear Astute-class submarines. Following independence, the new Scottish Government will likely want to assume control of the bases in Scotland, although the SNP has declared that it does not want nuclear weapons in the country and thus discussion on the future of the fleet at Faslane would be front and center. Due to the shear impossibility of re-locating the assets at Faslane in the near term (if ever) a condition of Scottish independence will need to be long-term basing rights of the UK fleet in Faslane. Such a situation is not without precedent. The establishment of the Irish Free State in 1921 included the maintenance of three treaty ports in Ireland that endured until 1938 and the dissolution of the Soviet Union led to a treaty between the Ukraine and Russia on the continued presence of the Russian Black Sea Fleet at Sevastopal. This agreement was recently extended until 2042.

3. Infrastructure—Although MOD property inside Scotland will most likely be transferred to Scotland (which will need to match a formula devised to determine how much Scotland contributes to UK defense and which then allocates property accordingly. Property and material in excess of Scotland’s financial investment in the MOD will necessitate payment by the newly independent Scotland). Scotland will still need to reproduce the wider command and control structure in which those bases operate. Military bases are only a cog in the machinery of national defense. The functioning of the bases in Scotland relies on a much wider network of Ministry of Defense institutions all located beyond the boundaries of Scotland. Scottish independence would result in a severing of these connections. A newly independent Scotland would need to reproduce the centralized functions of the Ministry of Defense in London, as well as developing the support capabilities provided by other parts of the MOD in the UK from logistics to educational institutions such as the Joint Command and Staff College (JCSC). Of course for some areas, such as the JCSC, it might be possible for Scottish officers to train while the UK is paid for such services by the new Scottish Government.

4. Equipment—dissolution of the Union would also require a division of military equipment between the two countries. This would most likely be part of a wider process of determining “ownership of assets as well as allocation of debt related to the past-procurement of such assets. It would be disingenuous of Mr. Alex Salmond and the SNP to believe that they should acquire weaponry, Land Rovers, helicopters, planes or ships (to name but a few pieces to be divided) without payment or assumption of debt related to such past procurement. It will thus be necessary to devise a formula for the transfer of equipment. It is worth noting that while there will be military bases in Scotland (which would be relatively easy to assess and transfer) much of the supporting equipment (especially lift capacity) is not necessarily linked to those bases.

5. Equipment Continued—Some critical pieces of equipment will be easily split as the SNP has, for example, disavowed the use and presence of the Trident nuclear deterrent in Scotland. While this may be an ethical point for the SNP, it also reflects fiscal reality. An independent Scotland would be a rump economy compared to that of the UK today (and of a UK post-Scottish independence). Compared to other small NATO/European nations, a Scottish defense budget would be paltry. Denmark and Norway, comparatively sized northern European nations spent 1.4 and 1.5% on defense in 2010 for total expenditure of 2.8GBP billion and 4.2GBP billion respectively. If Scotland was independent in 2010 and spent 1.4% of the GDP on defense the budget would be approximately 1.7 to 2GBP billion. This would make Scotland among the smallest defense spenders in Europe. While it is possible for many nations in northern Europe to run on small budgets, this discounts the significant start-up costs and independent Scotland will incur in developing a Ministry of Defense, MOD support systems, equipment procurement as well as the development of intelligence capacity such as MI5 and to a lesser extent MI6.

6. Personnel—Division of personnel may well be one of the most difficult aspects of Scottish independence. Scots have been over represented as a percentage of population in the armed forces of Great Britain since the act of Union. The martial history of the Scots and their contribution to the identity of Great Britain generally and the British Armed Forces in particular cannot be discounted. Military separation will be damaging to the psyche of the institution for a period. There is also the thorny question of allegiance and for which country one should serve. The clarion call of an independent Scotland may be enough to compel those of Scottish nationality to serve in the armed forces of an independent Scotland. Some may indeed enjoy the challenges of setting up a new military establishment. Those, however, wishing for more global engagement and involvement in a military force that, for the time being remains (technologically) second only to those of the United States, may very well opt to remain in the armed forces of Her Majesty. There may, of course, be Welsh, Irish and English who would wish to serve in the armed forces of the new Scotland. Historical precedent of this type in South Asia, the USSR and Czechoslovakia suggests that the militaries will split along socio-cultural lines. A process must be established to enable individuals to chose in which military they will serve.

7. Treaty Obligation & International Responsibilities—In the event of a “yes vote the issue of succession would need to be determined. If Scotland was considered a successor state of the UK 1707–2013, then it might be required to share some of the burden of the continued defense of territories linked to the former union such as the Falkands, Gibralter, and Northern Ireland. There is also the issue of the UK seat at the United Nations (strictly speaking not a military/defense issue, but one related to defense and foreign affairs) and its attendant seat on the UN Security Council. Would the new, smaller UK inherit all of the previous treaty rights and commitments—as was the case with Russia post-USSR dissolution in 1991—or would these be shared? This question will need to be answered.

8. NATO—One of the thorniest questions on the issue of international obligations will be Scotland’s role vis-à-vis NATO. Scotland has articulated interest in being involved in the European Union and ESDP, which as a smaller economy will most likely help future economic transfers via infusions of funds from the EU to Scotland. However, Alex Salmond and the SNP have a firmly anti-NATO perspective. This is problematic because Scotland has depended on NATO for security for over 60 years now. A refusal to join the Alliance that helped secure Scotland in the Cold War and post-Cold War era would be seen as a direct affront to countries that Scotland might want to court post-independence. This would include not only neighbours such as Norway and Denmark, but also the USA and Canada. Furthermore, it could poison relations with England and Wales, who will see Scotland as “free-riding on English defense expenditure and commitment to NATO. The SNP can, of course, change its current policy, but this would mean, among other things, accepting NATO as a nuclear alliance—a position counter to the SNP position of nuclear weapons. It will not be easy for the SNP to do a u-turn on this issue and the implications of the current position vis-à-vis NATO need to be more clearly elaborated to the Scottish people.

9. An independent Scotland will, over time, be able to develop a Scottish Defense Force that can act in the protection of Scotland and possibly may even contribute to future international operations via the UN or other international organizations. Achieving such a force, however, will be costly, complicated and difficult. The current Scottish leadership must be more honest and transparent with the Scottish people about the challenges of defense in a post-independence era. For England and Wales, a vote for Scottish independence will have implications but they will be far less severe than for the newly independent Scotland.

Dr Michael John Williams is Reader in International Relations at Royal Holloway, University of London and a Term-Member of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. He researches and teaches in the areas of war, security studies and strategy.

July 2012

Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list