Navigating Intelligently, through Upturned Boats

Published: 21 October 2013

The Scottish Parliament – or perhaps more accurately the Scottish Parliament Building – is a complex proposition. From the outside it is confusingly angular and difficult to grasp: it vexes and perplexes in equal measure. Once inside, however, and with friendly parliament staff on hand to clarify its structural nuances and hidden historical meanings, the Parliament begins to make sense. Through its architecture, art, symbols and substance the Scottish Parliament exists – like all good parliaments should - to represent the voices and character of its people. Coming to this realisation, however, requires some expert guidance.

It was fitting therefore that the Scottish Parliament should host the first in a series of seminars, sponsored by the Economic and Social Research Council and led by researchers from Scotland’s foremost academic institutions, that seek to confront a similarly challenging issue: security in Scotland, with or without constitutional change.

Attended by academics, researchers and practitioners from a variety of institutions – and with a suitably diverse range of skills and specialisms – this first seminar offered a chance to address the key questions of how the impending referendum on independence, irrespective of its outcome, will impact upon the provision of security for the people of Scotland.

From the outset the challenges were clear. Public debate on these matters has been, to date at least, relatively low-key. Media coverage has been present but sporadic; interrupted by the cut and thrust of political campaigning and point-scoring, particularly around the issues of defence and a nuclear deterrent. The lack of focus on broader issues of security – including intelligence capabilities and the creep of securitisation into other areas of government and public life – has been fuelled by two key factors. Firstly, a lack of public awareness of the issues, proposals and counter-proposals has restricted discussion. We await the Scottish Government’s White Paper on independence, to be published in November that will outline the vision for how security will be achieved for Scots. Secondly, and as identified by lead researcher and seminar facilitator Dr Andrew Neal, there is a lack of academic expertise on security arrangements in Scotland because, until now, there has been no real requirement for an understanding of how security is understood and delivered in Scotland. The independence referendum, however, has created a requirement for the development of such expertise. This seminar series seeks to promote public and political debate, as well as developing a critical academic voice on the subject.

The presentations delivered to the first seminar highlighted the ways in which the security landscape, or architecture, has changed and will continue to evolve, irrespective of the processes or outcomes of constitutional change. The development of the UK intelligence agencies in the post-9/11 threat landscape was emphasised, incorporating discussion of their internal reconfiguration and reorientation towards ‘new’ threats – from Al-Qaeda related and inspired extremism to the cyber-attacks – and the deepening of pre-existing partnerships with agencies such as the police, especially through the establishment of regional stations of the Security Service. This has created a robust ‘CT-network’ across the UK – valued by all partners – that helps to, in the words of Police Scotland, ‘keep people safe’. The role of the Scottish Government in this network, however, is only partial: policing is a responsibility devolved to Holyrood, but the Scottish Government has no responsibility for the intelligence agencies under current arrangements, and cannot hold them accountable.

There was recognition, however, that security runs deeper, and is more widespread and multi-faceted than the work of the intelligence agencies alone. Through a range of agencies – including policing, health, environment and energy – the Scottish Government has become a significant actor in the provision of resilience and consequence management. Such responsibilities, and the coordination of such agencies, are the ‘bedrock’ of security for the Scottish Government. Moreover, Scotland has begun to develop its own expertise in this regard, even in relation to relatively new areas such as cyber-security.

Despite the recognition of creeping securitisation across many policy areas, there remained one fundamental question for the seminar to consider: what would be the role, function and form of the intelligence agencies in Scotland, with or without constitutional change? Although the Scottish Government vision remains unknown – at least until the White Paper is released – consensus emerged that any capability for Scotland would depend up its posture towards the rest of the world. Whilst there would certainly be functional pressures on both sides of the border – and beyond – to co-operate in matters of security, an independent Scotland would need to make key decisions on its own capabilities and resources, future plans and the extent to which it would wish to invest – both financially and politically – in any existing intelligence-sharing arrangements. Such decisions strike at the very heart of notions of ‘independence’, particularly given the recent media coverage of the relationship between the UK’s GCHQ and the US’s NSA

From the ‘outside’ the subject matter of this seminar series may seem, much like its inaugural venue, confusing, complex and unclear – and, in many ways, it is. The success of this first seminar, however, lies in bringing this complexity to the fore and seeking to provide some clarity to the issues at hand. In this regard, the undertaking of this seminar series should be welcomed by those interested in developing informed and insightful debate in the run-up to Scotland’s decision on its constitutional future. Moving forwards, and by bringing together the foremost experts in the field, this seminar series will facilitate and foster informed debate with the people who will matter most on Thursday 18 September 2014: the Scottish people.

Seminar report: Assessing security governance in the UK and Scotland under current arrangements

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