Azeem Ibrahim: How safe would independent Scotland be?

Picture: PA
Picture: PA
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HOW safe would an independent Scotland be? And would independence make Scotland more or less secure? The think-tank I set up last year, the Scotland Institute, set out to answer these questions, and this week we release our report.

To write it, we interviewed former Secretaries of Defence, Generals, Admirals, Air Commodores, and officials at Nato and EU headquarters. We had our conclusions reviewed by a team of top academics and overseen by General Mackay, one of Scotland’s most respected soldiers. Our report is the closest thing in existence today to a Strategic Defence and Security Review for an independent Scotland.

Our first conclusion is that Scotland would indeed be able to defend herself. Scotland is not surrounded by hostile nations, we have few territorial threats, we have produced fine soldiers, and we will doubtless continue to do so. An independent Scottish navy, for example, would have to protect Scottish fisheries, maritime oil and gas installations, and provide a rescue service and safe passage for friendly vessels. Scotland would have to build or buy the vessels necessary to achieve this, or negotiate some from the Royal Navy. All this might be difficult, but it would be possible.

The second question, though, is would independence make Scotland more or less secure. Across many of the issues we looked at, we found a similar pattern: as an independent country, Scotland would need to spend a lot of money and energy to reach the level of security we already enjoy. In other words, independence would mean exchanging considerable new expense and new uncertainty for no extra security.

Take the issue of facilities. Advocates of independence argue that Scotland shares more of the burdens and fewer of the benefits of defending the United Kingdom than the rest of the country. But our report rejects that argument. After all, Scotland is not defended only by the assets and capabilities that are in Scotland. Nor does the United Kingdom set defence posture according to the security interests of only one particular region; it is set according to the security needs of the whole UK.

Clearly, an independent Scotland would lose access to certain facilities currently used by UK armed forces. It could respond by deciding to accept a lower level of security as the price of independence. Or it could respond by replacing those facilities. If it were to take this option, it would mean, for example, developing a Scottish fleet of ships, reinvigorating the Rosyth base, opening an armed forces headquarters, a new defence establishment, a new defence academy and a new Scottish Ministry of Defence. In effect, the Scottish taxpayer would be paying more to achieve the level of security Scotland currently enjoys.

This pattern is the same across a number of issues. Take recruitment, for example. At present, Scotland’s infantry battalions find recruitment harder than they should. But because independence would likely mean a more limited international role for Scottish troops, it would likely make an Independent Scottish Defence Force less attractive to ambitious recruits, and so make it even harder for our battalions to recruit.

Take intelligence. Scotland currently benefits from some of the most state of the art, complex, and expensive intelligence facilities in the world. Much of our ability to gather intelligence depends, though, on the UK’s privileged relationships with the US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. An independent Scotland would have to pay for and fund its own facilities and carve out its own alliances. It is a similar story with cybersecurity. Reproducing the current arrangements would take years of work and billions of pounds of investment.

And it is a similar story on Nato. Some opponents of independence argue that if an independent Scotland ditched our nuclear capabilities it would mean we could not join Nato. We disagree. The bigger issue is that the process would be fraught with uncertainty but that Nato membership would add nothing to Scottish security that we don’t already have.

We also find that independence might pose a risk to our defence contractors. If Scotland were to become independent, the government of the rest of the UK might well take the decision that it was a strategic imperative to keep defence production within its sovereign territory, threatening thousands of Scottish jobs and an industry producing billions of pounds of turnover each year.

Our conclusions are clear. If Scotland were to be independent tomorrow, the government of an independent Scotland would likely be able to keep us secure. But keeping us as secure as we are today would cost us a great deal in money and energy without offering us a great deal of extra benefit in return. «

Dr Azeem Ibrahim is the executive chairman of the Scotland Institute