Analysis: London’s ‘head in sand’ approach can’t go on

MoD: criticised for failing to plan for independent Scotland. Picture: Ian Rutherford
MoD: criticised for failing to plan for independent Scotland. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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Today’s joint House of Commons and House of Lords investigation into the London government’s security strategy described as “surprising” that no consideration had been given to the impact on defence issues of Scottish independence.

The report highlighted “potential disputes” with an independent Scotland “over the response to security threats and the division of resources, to questions about basing of forces and the future of the UK’s nuclear deterrent”.

In the report, the impression is given that the London government just wants to “park the issue” until after any independence referendum to avoid giving any fillip to the SNP’s flagship policy.

London ministers clearly want to dodge anything that might suggest that Scottish independence is a realistic prospect or needs to be given serious consideration.

It is rather bizarre that the first chair of the National Security Council, Sir Peter Ricketts, had received no instructions to consider the implications of Scottish independence, particularly as very soon it might start impacting on big spending decisions by the Ministry of Defence.

In the short term, the British Army is soon to announce the details of plans to withdraw 20,000 troops from Germany and return a large proportion of them to bases in Scotland.

Hundreds of millions of pounds are set to be invested in building a so-called “super garrison” at Kirknewton outside Edinburgh for up to 10,000 troops that would be wasted if the troops ended up being moved to England after Scottish independence. A similar conundrum faces the MoD and BAE Systems over the plans to build the Royal Navy’s next generation of frigates.

More than a £100 million was allocated to design the ship last year and in 2014 decisions will have to be made on where the ships will be built. BAE Systems is looking to rationalise its UK shipyards from three sites – Govan and Scotstoun on the Clyde and at Portsmouth – to two or maybe one and it is looking to the government for a steer on where it wants the Type 26 Global Combat Ship to be built.

The company clearly wants to avoid closing down its Portsmouth shipyard and then a few years later being told to re-open it if the London government baulks at building the ships at yards in an independent Scotland.

Over a longer term, the future basing of the Royal Navy nuclear deterrent submarines is the really big question.

As the project to build the successor gains momentum over the next five years, the MoD will turn to government ministers for guidance with investment decisions running into billions of pounds.

This is an amount of money that the ministry – let alone the London government – just cannot afford to waste for short-term political advantage.

It is very clear that the London government’s “head in the sand” approach to Scottish independence cannot be sustained for much longer.

Some of the biggest defence investment decisions of the coming decade involve Scotland and clarity is needed if billions of pounds are not be wasted.

• Tim Ripley is a defence analyst.