Alex Massie: Devil’s in the detail on defence

THE desire for an independent Scotland to take its place on the global stage must be matched by clarity on dealing with the technical challenges, writes Alex Massie

A Trident nuclear submarine. Picture: TSPL
A Trident nuclear submarine. Picture: TSPL

What, the old Scots catechism asked, is the chief end of man? We might comparably ask what is the chief role of the state? But rather than the glorification of God we might respond that the state’s first, unavoidable, duty is to defend and otherwise protect its citizens. If a nation is a community, defending that realm is the state’s primary and most unavoidable responsibility. It helps define who and what we are. Defence, like its foreign policy sibling, is a means by which we establish our place in the world.

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The world is large and complex, however, and independence is not what once it was. Ever since the party embraced the European Union in the early 1990s, the SNP has made a virtue of the interdependent nature of the modern globalised world. There are some issues – climate change, for instance – that are too big to be addressed by individual nation states.

Moreover, arguing that an independent Scotland would, of course, be a member of key international institutions offers a kind of reassurance designed to allay fears that independence might leave Scotland alone and somehow isolated. On the contrary, the Scottish Government insists, international institutions such as the EU (and the United Nations) provide both a means for expressing distinct Scottish interests and conferring the kind of respect due to an equal member of the international community. Most of all, however, membership of high-profile institutions such as the EU, UN and Nato reminds Scots that though we may be a small nation we are not one of no consequence.

‘Technical matters too important to dismiss’

Here as elsewhere in the independence debate, however, the detail matters just as much as the principle of the issue. Would membership of the EU really be as seamless a process as the Scottish Government suggests? Or would the precise terms of Scottish membership of the EU be a matter for complex debate and compromise? Would Scotland have to make an at least notional commitment to eventually joining the euro? How, precisely, might a common travel area with the remainder of the United Kingdom work? Would Scotland inherit its share of the UK’s present EU rebate? Would, indeed, Scotland be a net contributor to EU funds or a net beneficiary? Would Scotland really win a better deal for the country’s fishermen and farmers? Might Scottish membership even be subject to being vetoed by other nation states – most pertinently Spain – who have no wish to encourage separatist or independence movements in their own countries?

If these are certainly technical matters they remain ones too important to be dismissed as mere procedural difficulties that will, in the fullness of time, be satisfactorily resolved. As yet no clarification on Scotland’s likely status has come from Brussels. European Union officials and office-bearers have no wish to involve themselves in what, for the time being, remains a domestic UK issue.

It is, as is so often the case, a matter of interpretation. Unionists point to the difficulties and complexities of EU accession; nationalists insist there is no reason to suppose the detailed terms of Scottish EU membership cannot be resolved in a friendly, common sense fashion. Scotland, they insist, is not in the same position as a country such as Serbia that seeks to join the EU. Scotland is already a member of the EU and already subject to EU laws and treaties.

Such an interpretation raises the prospect of Scotland being of the EU but not quite in the EU during the 18 months in which the terms of its full membership would be negotiated following a Yes vote. Scottish membership might be placed in a kind of suspended animation while the negotiations took place. That might not resolve all “risk” or “uncertainty”; it might also be all that can be safely speculated right now.

If that is necessarily hypothetical so is the Scottish Government’s claim that public opinion in England is the greatest threat to Scottish membership of the EU. If Scotland votes No and if David Cameron wins a second term in office next May and if the UK Government renegotiates the terms of Britain’s membership and then holds a referendum in which Britain votes to leave the EU then Scotland, which might have voted to remain a member, will be on the outside of Europe looking in and not, as it might be after independence, a full partner in the European project. Such a scenario is not impossible (though it ignores the fact that more than a third of Scots tell pollsters they favour leaving the EU) but it is also far from guaranteed.

Nato issue looms large

If the EU is one thing, membership of Nato is another. The SNP leadership has committed an independent Scotland to join the Atlantic alliance; the SNP membership has, with some reservations, backed the leadership. The SNP remains an anti-nuclear party but intends Scotland to be a member of the western nuclear alliance.

There will be no nuclear submarines based in Scotland, however. On this the SNP insist there is no room for compromise. Trident will have to leave the Clyde and be based elsewhere. If this means sacrificing other objectives during the independence negotiations then so be it. It is a price worth paying even if, viewed dispassionately, removing nuclear submarines from Scottish waters does little to advance the goal of international nuclear disarmament.

Nonetheless, Scotland would most probably not be a nuclear-free zone – as New Zealand is – denying American or British nuclear submarines access to Scottish waters. The Scottish Government has hinted instead that it would operate a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on such matters. Pragmatism has trumped principle.

An independent Scotland’s defence needs will be met by a budget that rests somewhere between that of the Republic of Ireland’s modest armed forces and Denmark’s larger, more sophisticated, military apparatus. It would allow the country to contribute to UN peacekeeping operations but unable to supply large numbers of troops to Nato operations. “No more illegal wars,” nationalists say; no more “punching above our weight as part of the United Kingdom”, unionists reply.

Here again, however, the defence of the realm, like membership of the EU, is as much a matter of signalling the kind of Scotland Yes campaigners desire as it is a conclusive or convincing demonstration of the kind of Scotland that would actually arise from independence. The principles may be known and largely agreed upon; the detail is a different matter. Resolving those issues would be the chief end of the state’s early years.