White paper reflections - Defence

Published: 29 November 2013
Author: Colin Fleming

The White Paper sets out a comprehensive and realistic defence blueprint in the event of Independence. While some of the Scottish Government (SG) defence aspirations will be shaped through negotiation, on NATO membership its proposed defence structure, and its commitments to serving personnel, the SG has sought to reassure the Scottish people, the rest of the United Kingdom and potential allies that it will take its defence responsibilities seriously.

Of course, issues such as Trident, the division of assets, NATO, and EU membership will require negotiation. The UK government will not pre-negotiate on these issues and it is therefore impossible to have exact certainty on what Scottish Defence will look like in the early years of Independence. However, the paper sets out in some detail how the Scottish Government wishes to approach these negotiations. On NATO, the SG has committed to signing the alliance Strategic Concept, stripping away the main barrier to membership of that organisation. Again, on NATO and on a host of other non-defence areas, the removal of the nuclear deterrent will be hotly debated. However, Scotland will not be made to host nuclear weapons on Scottish soil against its will; indeed, only 3 of the 28 members of the alliance have a nuclear capability. Having a constitutional ban on nuclear weapons will not preclude Scotland from joining the alliance.

It is more likely that a problem would arise on the timescales regarding the removal of Trident. The Scottish Government has been attacked by its opponents on this issue, and it is true that if Scotland forced the rUK into nuclear disarmament then this would be a significant obstacle to overcome. The White Paper deals with this issue, and states that the SG has a ‘view’ to remove Trident by the end of the first parliamentary term in of an independent Scotland. This would give 6-7 years from a ‘Yes’ vote. Like other areas of the referendum debate the exact time needed to remove nuclear weapons is keenly contested; Scottish CND have suggested as little as two years, while some defence analysts have suggested a period of 10-15 years. The Scottish Government position takes a middle ground between these different opinions.

This is essentially a pre-negotiation position and there may be trade-offs along the way that provide the UK government more time to find a solution to its own Trident question. If the Scottish Government provided a workable transitional period then this would further benefit Scotland’s membership into NATO and would provide a solid basis from which Scottish – rUK defence cooperation could proceed. Indeed, in the event of Independence, the government of the United Kingdom has stated (through the terms of the Edinburgh Agreement) that it will respect the outcome. With the eyes of the world on the transition to independence, and the government of rUK will not want to be perceived as playing hard ball. The prospect of a negotiated settlement is thus in everyone’s best interests.

The White Paper’s emphasis on shared responsibilities, and a continued defence relationship with what would become the remainder of the United Kingdom is sensible and would be of benefit to both Scotland and rUK – again, this should factor in the removal of the nuclear deterrent. This would provide both Scotland and rUK with defence continuity and should assuage fears that security might jeopardised in the years immediately after independence. The phased transition to a fully functioning Scottish Defence Force will take time. Nevertheless, it is important that if Scotland becomes an independent state that it fully assesses its defence assets, the future procurement required to equip its armed forces, and perhaps most importantly, makes sure that it takes time to tailor a robust defence apparatus that suits Scotland’s security requirements. That the Scottish Government has articulated these issues in the White Paper is a welcome and common sense approach and should provide the public with a better sense of what security and defence would look like if Scotland votes Yes next September.

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