Response to Defence in an Independent Scotland criticisms


Last Monday saw the publication of the Scotland Institute’s flagship report on Defence and Security in an Independent Scotland. Our report was covered extensively across major publications, making the front pages of both The Times and Scotland on Sunday. The report is the most comprehensive study to date on its subject. We interviewed and took contributions from former Secretaries of Defence, Generals, Admirals, Air Commodores, senior officials at NATO and the EU, as well as dozens of top defence academics. To ensure the report was both rigorous in its analysis and objective in its findings, we asked two of the leading defence scholars in the UK to independently review our work: Professor Sir Hew Strachan (Oxford) and Professor Brian Holden Reid (Director of War Studies, Kings College London).

Since publication a number of criticisms have been leveled at the report. This is excellent news. It means that one of the principal aims of the Institute – to foster a lively and evidence-based debate – is being fulfilled. Here are the most common arguments and their rebuttals.

Q: Scotland does not actually need a large military budget as we don’t wish to get involved in foreign wars and are hardly likely to get invaded anytime soon.

A. If the SNP’s post independence plans were to have a ‘homeland security’ approach to defence – no force projection or international missions – that might be a reasonable and realistic approach for Scotland does not face territorial threats and is not surrounded by hostile nations. A case could be made that in such a situation all that would be needed is an effective coast guard, reliable police force, good intelligence services and so on etc. No membership of NATO would be required as Article 42.7 of the Lisbon Treaty provides EU Member States with a security guarantee. But that proposal is not on the table. It is not the policy of any major party. And it is certainly not the SNP’s policy. In their 2009 paper “Your Scotland, Your Voice” they are clear that an independent Scotland will “help to prevent and resolve conflicts and war anywhere in the world” and “further peaceful development in the world…” “like those in the Balkans” – a NATO mission. They also suggest they would “actively participate in the European Security and Defence Policy of the European Union.” And a 2012 SNP Conference resolution is clear that an independent Scotland under the SNP would participate in both UN and EU missions, requiring “military capabilities, including a cyber security and intelligence infrastructure”. Further, at its last party conference, the SNP overturned a declared policy of opposing NATO membership in favour of entry into the Alliance.

This clearly suggests that the SNP want an independent Scotland to be capable of contributing to missions conducted far afield (as well as the Balkans and the Middle East the EU operates a number of missions in Africa).”

If you want a homeland security defence posture, the SNP is not your party.

Q: Scotland would inherit defence assets from the UK – your report makes it sounds like Scotland would have to start from scratch.

A: “It is reasonable to assume that Scotland would get a fair share of defence assets but it is not automatic. This is one of the questions our report looked into at length. All military assets in Scotland legally belong to the UK government and if Scotland were to inherit anything it would only be by virtue of negotiations, not automatic inheritance. With defence cuts and an over stretched military, Westminster is hardly likely to give away its prized possessions very easily

Q: The SNP’s proposed annual defence budget of £2.5 billion would be £500 million more than the UK currently spends in Scotland on defence.

A: This is based on a misconception that countries and regions ‘get their fair share’ of defence according to what they spend. The UK government does not organise its defence posture around the needs of particular regions but with an eye to the country as a whole. Defence can only ever be collective. Arguing that Scotland gets a raw deal from the UK’s defence spending is like arguing that one part of Scotland – Renfrewshire, say, or Leith – would ‘get a raw deal’ from defence spending in an independent Scotland. The reality is that in the same way that the radio and radar stations in the Outer Hebrides and Shetlands are not there just to keep the islanders secure, the assets and capabilities in Scotland are not just there for Scotland’s use, but to play their part in defending the whole of the UK. When it comes to defence policy, these kind of claims do not make sense.

Q: A post-independence budget would be adequate as it is comparable to similar sized countries like Denmark and Norway.

A: There are two problems with this line of attack. The first is that Norway and Denmark both spent a great deal on the big initial costs of defence equipment and infrastructure during the Cold War and are reaping the benefits today.

The second is that Scotland would have to spend a great deal in ‘startup costs.’ To approach current levels of defence that would have to include a new defence academy, a defence research establishment, a reinvigoration of the Rosyth base so that we have two naval bases, a new Scottish Ministry of Defence, and so on. ]

Expectations that we could achieve a military par with two long-established members of NATO are very wide of the mark.

Q: An independent Scotland would still be able to retain defence jobs – to say otherwise is just scaremongering.

A: An honest assessment suggests otherwise. Over 15,000 jobs in Scotland depend on the defence industry. Labour’s 2005 Terms of Business Agreement Defence Industrial strategy guarantees a minimum level of orders to build Royal Navy ships to keep UK shipyards viable. This agreement has been extant under the Coalition government.

The MOD is reluctant to sign a contract to build thirteen Type 26 Frigate on the Clyde until after the referendum as they would not be keen on contracting a foreign country where they would not have full freedom of movement.

In the unlikely event the contract went to open tender, the Clyde yards would face stiff competition from the likes of Poland and South Korea.

Best case scenario would be for an independent Scotland to have a very pro-active defence industrial strategy to make up for lost orders.

A Scottish defence equipments budget would, according to the Royal United Services Institute, likely be between 272 and 336 million pounds per annum. At the very high end it could reach 1 billion – the cost of one Type 45 Class Destroy.

The worst-case scenario would be the wholesale dismantling of the defence industry.

Q: After independence Scotland will get rid of the nuclear weapons in Scotland.

A. Getting rid of Trident implies that the UK government is able to relocate the nuclear-powered submarines which carry the missiles and find suitable storage for the weapons systems themselves. At the moment there are only three navel bases outside Scotland which could conceivably perform that role: Barrow (Cumbria), Milford Haven (Pembrokeshire) and Devonport (Devon). Yet all three are unsuitable for a variety of reasons (not all are deep water ports, some are near gas plants).

The most likely scenario is that a new facility will have to be constructed and that could take up to twenty years. The UK will therefore likely lease HMNB Clyde from the new Scottish government and in such a scenario both sides will have to compromise. The UK by basing is strategic nuclear deterrent in a foreign country and the SNP by allowing Trident to remain until it can be relocated.

We are delighted to see such a robust and evidence-led debate on the effect of independence on Scottish defence. The SNP is the party that is advocating significant constitutional change. It is therefore incumbent upon them to provide evidence as to why that change is desirable and workable. As our report has shown, so far their post independence defence policy is critically wanting.

Contributed by
  • Azeem Ibrahim

    Azeem Ibrahim

    Dr Azeem Ibrahim is the Executive Chairman of the Scotland Institute. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Scholar at the Harvard Kennedy School and a World Fellow at Yale. 19 Posts
Alexander Scott
Alexander Scott

"There is no reason why regiments, units, airbases or ships cannot be based anywhere in the UK" - 'Alan' There is, actually. Several reasons in fact. As the authors note with regard to Trident, many naval ships are limited in terms of optimum deployment - they cannot operate effectively from smaller ports, they need deep water, the MoD don't want half a city to know every time a strategic asset comes in or out of port, etc. Air bases are slightly less limited geographically, but still have preferred landscapes. The flat land of Southern England is far more suited to the long runways needed by large transport aircraft, for instance. And while the glens of the Highlands or Snowdonia are great for practicing hill-dodging, that's not something you want to do by necessity on every flight in or out. Finally, we come to the most important aspect - logistics. Modern armies have a vast amount of shared infrastructure and equipment, from artillery and engineering to quartermastery and command & control. Gone are the days when each regiment could operate - and therefore base themselves - independently. In modern warfare, everybody needs to be thoroughly familiar with the shared equipment before getting anywhere near the hot end. By the very purpose of the armed forces, they need to be deployable around the world at short notice. While it would be possible to muster troops from widely dispersed bases and then ship them overseas, or to ship each unit directly from its base to the war zone, that would be madly inefficient in comparison to keeping them relatively close together and sharing transport. At which point, the higher density of usable sites in the South for outward transport makes it the obvious focus.


"...the assets and capabilities in Scotland are not just there for Scotland’s use, but to play their part in defending the whole of the UK." That is undoubtedly correct in theory. However, where the armed forces are based has a positive effect on the local economy and is in effect a kind government subsidy. There is no reason why regiments, units, airbases or ships cannot be based anywhere in the UK since no part of it is currently likely to be attacked any more than any other. At the moment that kind of 'subsidy' benefits the southern half of England more than it does anywhere else.

Dr Alan McCowan
Dr Alan McCowan

"If you want a homeland security defence posture, the SNP is not your party." Maybe one day, many years from now, people will grasp that a Yes vote in the referendum is not a vote to hand Scotland to the SNP. It's a vote for the right to choose our own government. What that government's defence policy will be is a matter for elections, not the referendum. Do I need to dumb it down any more? Let me know. "The SNP’s proposed annual defence budget" See above. "The UK by basing i[t]s strategic nuclear deterrent in a foreign country and the SNP by allowing Trident to remain until it can be relocated." See above. (Also, Trident is the UK's problem, not an independent Scotland's. If independence negotiations don't go to Scotland's liking, the UK can take Trident and scuttle it in Lake Windermere for all we care.)


Well done Dr Ibrahim. Would love to see the cybernats address these points. Facts don't seem to matter to most of them. That is the definition of fanaticism.

Eiffel 85
Eiffel 85

The vast majority of the Uks military recruitment, capital and thus HQ assets lies in the South of England ergo it makes sense to have the vast majority of troops there, there is no subsidy of favortism, only logical military sense, like wise in an 'Independent' Scotland the vast majority of defence assets will be based around Edinburgh and Glasgow, therefore a new Scottish military subsidy will benefit the 'Southern' half of Scotland more than it will the other 3/4, I see nothing in the SNPs current policy to say that they will be setting up New naval bases in Mallaig or the Phase 2 artillery training school in Lerwick


If the referendum results in a YES vote, the SNP will immediately put into motion negotiations to join NATO & EU and all the responsibilities that exist with that. To believe that any future government would be willing (or able) to reverse these particularly when so much treasure has been expended building up defence infrastructure is very naive and clutching at straws.