Scotland's defence industry can boost our economy and help Ukraine defeat Vladimir Putin. It's nothing to be ashamed of – Stewart McDonald

The Scottish Government should not be ashamed of our vibrant defence sector and the jobs it provides

Westminster did not cover itself in glory this week. Just days after the Speaker ripped up the parliamentary rulebook in the apparent name of MPs’ safety, we sat and watched Diane Abbott – the first black woman ever elected to the UK Parliament – bob up and down more than 40 times during Prime Minister’s Questions in an attempt to be called to speak. Instead, after a major funder of the governing party allegedly called for her to be shot, she watched Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer make political hay from the abuse that she has received without ever intimating that her voice should be heard.

While that grubby incident is not the focus of this week’s column, I could not write this week without first expressing my utmost sympathy and solidarity with Diane Abbott. Instead, this column begins in the House of Lords, with an intervention from the one and only George Foulkes. Earlier this week, the noble Lord slipped into his ermine and slinked into the Lords to set forth about the “fury all over Scotland” at the fact that the Scottish Government was engaging on the international stage.

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While he was perhaps preoccupied at the time – infamously spending hours of precious parliamentary time on his campaign to ban the video game Space Invaders – George Foulkes should remember the vicious battles that took place in the 1980s between the Scottish Development Agency, Scotland’s first trade promotion agency, and the UK Government. The Lords, after all, is meant to be the UK’s institutional political memory.

Scotland's defence industry produces the kind of drones that Ukraine needs in its efforts to repel Vladimir Putin's invasion (Picture: Sean Gallup/Getty Images)Scotland's defence industry produces the kind of drones that Ukraine needs in its efforts to repel Vladimir Putin's invasion (Picture: Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
Scotland's defence industry produces the kind of drones that Ukraine needs in its efforts to repel Vladimir Putin's invasion (Picture: Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

The Foreign Office, one historian later wrote, spent the decade “waging a war” against the SDA to restrict its international activity, while one Herald article at the time quoted an SDA official – in language that puts today’s constitutional battles firmly in the shade – describing the appointment of a UK Government officials as the SDA’s chief executive as “the establishment of a Vichy Government in Bothwell Street”. And let us not forget that, long before those battles were taking place, Margaret Thatcher’s government was among the earliest and fiercest advocates of a distinct overseas Scottish presence which, true to form, one of her ministers once described as a “separately marketable commodity overseas”.

Clydeside built many warships

I reference these not by way of political point-scoring, as easy as it is with the noble Lord. What I want to highlight is both Scotland’s selective amnesia when it comes to foreign and security policy and the fact that vicious internal battles over these policies have been fought in every government in almost every country in the world. Scotland is no exception.

I see the amnesia whenever I hear the comrades of the Scottish left reminisce about Red Clydeside or the glory days of the yards at Govan. I have to ask myself: what on Earth do they think was being built in these yards? It wasn’t paddle steamers for pleasure cruises down the Clyde. One look at the Wikipedia page for “ships built on the River Clyde” shows a very long list of names, almost all beginning with HMS.

Scotland is blessed with a vibrant defence sector that provides high-quality training and good jobs to communities around the country. The Scottish Government should not be ashamed of that. Yet while the Scottish Government has shown ambition and ability to act internationally, its self-imposed constitutional blinkers still seem to impede its action on defence and the material support it can give to one of our prized industries. I cannot think of any good reason why the Scottish Government cannot be as proactive on supporting our defence sector jobs as it is on international policy.

Ukraine's hour of need

Ukraine is crying out for armaments to help defend us all against the threat of a Russian invasion, and Scotland has a defence sector that produces them, especially in drone technology. We have universities that work on defence and electronic warfare research and development. We have thousands of people across the country who would benefit from sustained investment in the high-quality jobs that the defence industry provides. Having such a strategic asset that helps meet our own defence requirements, materially backs Ukraine in its hour of need, contributes to Europe and Nato’s changing defence posture, and drives productivity and economic growth is as close to a win-win as you would find in politics. Yet we have seen the sector treated, at best, like an awkward secret or, at worst, something to be ashamed of. I reject this mentality.

Holyrood simply must get over its squeamishness on the defence industry. I will not pretend the Gaza conflict does not raise uncomfortable questions about arms exports to Israel and, to be clear, I support an arms embargo on Israel, which should have happened long before now. Even Margaret Thatcher did. But these are the same questions that SNP MPs, who were elected on a manifesto which promised to push the UK Government to halt defence exports to governments guilty of human rights violations, have been dealing with for years. Ignoring them does not make them go away.

In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Europe is actively pivoting to a new defence posture with industry at its heart. Industrial capacity was central to the conversations I had at this week’s Paris Defence and Strategy Forum, which brought together Europe’s defence and security community to exchange ideas and analysis on what that pivot should look like. Our defence sector in Scotland can play a critical role, not just in helping Ukraine to win the war, but in the broader recalibration of Europe’s security order. We should seize that opportunity with creativity, and partner with our defence sector to help it upscale and upskill for the new challenges of today.

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Ukraine has been a literal call to arms for governments across the West – the Scottish Government must also answer it. What else does being a good global citizen mean?

Stewart McDonald is SNP MP for Glasgow South



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