For Wales, see Scotland, but to a lesser degree..

Published: 25 November 2013

Guest blog by Francesca Dickson, Cardiff University

Those with an interest in the UK’s devolved politics might be familiar with an old adage, somewhere along the lines of ‘for Wales, see Scotland, but to a lesser degree’. It is perhaps fair to say that while Scotland ploughed its furrows, we in Wales followed roughly in the same direction, but at a slightly slower pace, in a slightly less dramatic fashion. Sometimes, however, it takes a day outside of our ‘Bay bubble’, swapping the seminar rooms of the Senedd or Pierhead building for those at the Scottish Parliament, to recognise quite how far these two political contexts have diverged in more recent times. 

In Wales, the issues dominating the agenda (for those involved in constitutional and devolved politics) include the size of the National Assembly, the possible devolution of taxation powers, and a move towards a reserved powers model, a debate given added prominence following the recent referral of a second National Assembly Bill to the Supreme Court. Meanwhile, in Scotland, the referendum on independence - now less than a year away - has seen debate in Holyrood enter territory that devolved politicians have, traditionally, dared not tread: foreign and defence policy. This was the subject of a seminar at the Scottish Parliament, the first in a series of events supported by the Economic and Social Research Council and organised by some of Scotland’s leading security and foreign policy academics.

The Scottish Government is due to publish its White Paper addressing these aspects of the independence debate on Tuesday 26 November 2013, while we also await a UK Government analysis of the issues involved. For quite obvious reasons, Scotland does not yet boast academic and policy networks with an existing specialism on Scottish, rather than UK, security governance. However, regardless of the eventual referendum result, it is becoming apparent that – in the context of a much broader view of what actually constitutes ‘security’ – security governance is increasingly going to implicate Scottish authorities, including the Scottish Government. Redressing this lack of policy-specific expertise, and indeed mapping out possibilities for future arrangements, are aims of the seminar series as a whole.

Notably, security appears to be an area where the Scottish Government feels it ought to be involved; both where its citizens are directly concerned and when it relates to the Scottish nation more broadly. In many ways, this is a natural development of devolved government. Security no longer simply means ‘national’ security, which is a competence reserved to the UK Government. It increasingly strays into other areas of policy, where the Scottish Government may be used to taking the lead: health, environmental or education policy, for example.

The first seminar focussed particularly on existing security governance arrangements in the UK, and how they related to Scotland. As it stands, several Scottish agencies have a role – some more tangential than others - in security issues, particularly in terms of counter-terrorism. It is also apparent that, in some instances, the approach of Scottish actors does diverge from that of their UK counterparts. Examples raised during the seminar included Police Scotland’s attitude to concepts such as ‘resilience’, taking a broader view of what constitutes critical infrastructure than do partner institutions. Even in the event of a ‘no’ vote in next year’s referendum, there are likely to be some tensions with regards to the ability of agencies based almost exclusively in the South East of England to satisfy the interests of Scottish actors where operations concern their constituents – cases of international terrorism, for example. 

It was clear from the discussions that took place during this initial seminar that intergovernmental relations, between the Scottish and UK Governments, were crucial; both under current arrangements, and in terms of either referendum outcome. Even if the Scottish electorate voted in favour of independence, can a small country – any country, in fact – remain truly independent in the modern world? Particularly as regards national security and intelligence gathering, consultation and partnership remain an absolute necessity, most certainly in the case of a newly established country sharing a long and porous border with its closest neighbour.  As current arrangements stand, the concept of ‘etiquette’ was deemed to be a key principle in ensuring cooperation and consultation in cases involving UK agencies and Scottish stakeholders. Whether this informal approach will suffice in the long term may be questioned. New structures are certainly a possibility, both with and without constitutional change resulting from the independence vote.

In setting the overall scene of the UK’s security governance architecture, what became quickly apparent was the sheer complexity of this picture – and the size of the ‘stakes’ in this domain. An independent Scotland would face a number of key political decisions, all of which could impact on the security context that the country faced. What would Scotland’s continuing relationship be with NATO? What proportion of GDP would Scotland be willing to commit to defence expenditure? How would Scotland create security and intelligence structures capable of meeting the stringent requirements of ‘5 eye’ cooperation, currently between the UK, USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand? Would it preference co-operation with other networks (such as with European partners) alternatively? All of these decisions ‘signal’ particular messages to the wider international community, and have the potential to significantly alter their response to any bid Scotland might make for membership of the international community, and in particular to institutions such as the EU.

There would, of course, also be outstanding technical and operational issues from an intelligence perspective, in the event of a ‘yes’ vote. One illustrative example raised was the question of how accreditation and vetting procedures would work in terms of cooperation between an independent Scotland and its UK neighbours. It was advised that, from a purely technical perspective, all of these issues could – theoretically – be worked through. The bigger questions instead relate to the financial costs involved in establishing a separate Scottish intelligence system, and indeed what the Scottish authorities would actually want from their newly established institutions.

The crucial unknown factor in addressing these questions, and indeed running through the entirety of the discussions last Friday, was the nature of the relationship that an independent Scotland might seek to establish with the UK. More generally, of course, the overall context of any separation would undoubtedly influence the specific nature of the negotiations and discussions that were to take place.  The Scottish Government has not signalled that it would wish to dissent in any meaningful way from the overarching doctrine or approach of the UK’s national security strategy (which contrasts with divergent approaches that have been identified towards issues such as foreign intervention). However, seminar participants were keen to point out that Scotland would not necessarily be able to ‘take for granted’ a continued close relationship with the UK in security terms. The inherently political nature of all discussions regarding the prospect of an independent Scotland make assessing the parameters of any relationship with this speculative entity and the remaining UK almost impossible.

And here, we get to the rub. Any discussion of security in an independent Scotland is necessarily dealing in hypotheticals. The issues involved are therefore opaque; they overlap with political dynamics that are at once closely related – even cumulative – but also subject to influence from entirely external actors. Not to mention the ‘x’ factor (‘events, dear boy, events’). Compounding this ambiguity, we have little or no information on public attitudes regarding these issues, and the sensitive nature of the subject-matter necessarily limits the supply of information – for example on the internal workings of intelligence agencies or the current threat environment - to the general public.

An inevitable time lag will follow the referendum result and the creation of any new structures. However, key components of the debate (or at least preferred options) would need to be fairly well defined quite far in advance. The warning from one seminar participant was that a gap in continuity in terms of UK mainland security could be catastrophic. If a newly independent Scotland is not to represent a ‘weak link’ in the UK’s security framework, then discussions on a hypothetical entity’s hypothetical relationship with an equally hypothetical actor  (a rump-UK) must begin in earnest. Doing so, however, must surely influence the dynamics of the referendum itself. Arguments could be used to both reassure and deter potential voters in equal measure, by both the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ camps. Though necessary, such discussions cannot take place in a vacuum; complicating still further the terms on which the Scottish and UK Governments engage on these crucial issues in the lead-up to next year’s vote.