State of the debate: Scotland, NATO, and Trident?

Published: 27 August 2014
Author: Colin Fleming

Colin Fleming investigates issues relating to the ongoing defence debate.

There are several important  issues relating to the ongoing defence debate; not least questions about force structure, defence cooperation, and the proposed phased transition of forces from the UK to a future Scottish Defence Force. Despite this much of the discussion has revolved around two interrelated policy positions: (i) the Scottish Government’s intention to seek membership of NATO, and (ii) its commitment to remove the UK’s nuclear deterrent from an independent Scotland.  If there is a yes vote on September 18 can Scotland join NATO (a nuclear alliance) and simultaneously eject the UK deterrent? Can a state with a constitutional ban on nuclear weapons (also proposed in the White Paper) and join a nuclear club?

These questions have been debated repeatedly and there is an emerging consensus on the issue that this is indeed possible (though with a few caveats). If we take out the nuclear component and simply ask whether Scotland could join NATO the answer is pretty straightforward. Scotland sits at the heart of the Transatlantic area and is geo-strategically very important and, given time, there is scope for Scotland to bring military assets to NATO – especially in the North Sea and Eastern Atlantic where UK capability gaps exist. With its shared history as part of the alliance Scotland would be a very good candidate.  If we add to this NATO’s ‘open door’ policy, enshrined in article 10 of the Washington Treaty and reaffirmed along with NATO’s Strategic Concept in 2010 that any European state wishing to fulfil the Treaty obligations is open to apply for full membership then Scotland’s case for membership is strengthened again. Scotland is also in a slightly different position from other aspiring members.  Already meeting the necessary democratic and economic criteria and with a long history as part of the alliance already;  a future Scottish Defence Force (SDF) would meet NATO criteria vis-à-vis equipment through its share of UK assets. Although Scotland would take around 10 years to transition from being part of a UK defence to a fully Independent defence force, this should not pose too many problems. It serves no one’s interests having Scotland sitting outside the Alliance. This is particularly true at a time when NATO is calling on burden sharing – especially from its European members.

Could Scotland constitutionally ban nuclear weapons and still be a member?

At first look this appears to sit uneasily with NATO’s Strategic Concept, which underlines the fact that NATO is a nuclear alliance. It is also an argument raised by the ‘No’ campaign as well as the UK government, which have both suggested that signing the Strategic Concept does not fit the Scottish Government’s own anti-nuclear stance. In fact, however, if the Scottish Government is prepared to sign the strategic concept (as it suggest it would in the White Paper) then being anti-nuclear in itself would not preclude membership. That it has signalled its desire to do so makes membership much more likely – only 3 out of the current 28 NATO members are nuclear states and the ‘alliance has had a policy of not basing nuclear weapons in the territory of new member states since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

A more difficult barrier to full Scottish membership relates not to whether Scotland is anti-nuclear, but rather the speed in which it might force removal of the UK’s nuclear fleet from Faslane. A recent RUSI report has demonstrated that the UK (rUK) could find alternative basing arrangements at a lower cost than suggested by the UK government, but doing so would still take time – perhaps as long as 14 years after independence. This length of time is at odds with the Scottish Government’s position of removing the deterrent by the end of the first parliamentary term of an Independent parliament.

Under the terms of the Edinburgh Agreement the Scottish and UK governments have agreed to respect the decision of the Scottish people and under these circumstances Scotland could expect London to pave the way for Scottish membership. Members of the alliance are unlikely to decline Scottish membership if supported by the UK. However, if there are any outstanding disputes between Scotland and rUK it is possible that current members would, by default, come down in support of the UK position. In this scenario Scotland’s entry may be slowed. In this context the debate about the removal of the UK’s nuclear fleet from the Clyde may need to be resolved before Scotland gets the green light to join as a full member. Is there room for compromise?

If the Scottish Government pushed through the removal of Trident at its preferred timescale then this may leave the UK in a position where disarmament was forced upon it. This would have a serious impact on Scotland’s candidacy. This being said, the White Paper suggest a willingness to negotiate on this issue and may be flexible as part of a larger negotiation bargain. This would make sense on several fronts. It is clear that Trident would leave the Clyde if Scotland became independent; an extra 5-10 years would ensure that it was undertaken safely and would provide the rUK with time to decide upon its own future as a nuclear state. This would be a pragmatic step, not least because strong relations between the two countries will be required to transition towards a fully functioning SDF. Scotland could not be expected to maintain the deterrent indefinitely, but by providing the rUK with time to make other basing arrangements it is not unreasonable to predict that Scotland could indeed meet its two stated goals.

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