Comment: Risking our security too high price to pay

General Mackay at a British army base at Musa Qala in Helmand province, Afghanistan. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
General Mackay at a British army base at Musa Qala in Helmand province, Afghanistan. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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THE relationship between its people, government and armed forces forms the foundation of a nation’s prosperity and security.

For many hundreds of years the United Kingdom has benefited from those relationships both in adversity and peace.

When I agreed to chair the compilation of the report “Defence and Security in an Independent Scotland”, I did so having served for 27 years as a soldier in the British army; my most recent operational experience was as Commander of British Forces in Afghanistan. I served not just as a proud British officer, but so too as a very proud Scot. And so I wanted to explore, in as forensic detail as possible, the issues and challenges of breaking apart the United Kingdom’s armed forces.

I approached the task with a full under­standing of how political, public and emotive an issue this might be and sought to ensure that the report’s analysis would be bi-partisan. This has, I think, been achieved, notwithstanding that the evidence and conclusions weigh heavily on retaining the Union to safeguard our collective security. The report manages to be dispassionate in its analysis but passionate in its conclusions.

Having chaired the working group that examined naming conventions, uniforms and traditions for the creation of the ­Royal Regiment of Scotland, I gained a good under­standing of some of these sensitivities and how deeply sacred ­traditions, history and values matter. The Royal Regiment of Scotland has remained uniquely Scottish and has retained its proud Scottish heritage.

From my early days as a young platoon commander being tutored by my Platoon Sergeant – a Borders man – I have learnt that we Scots are indeed a warrior race. Scotland has always provided a disproportionate number of soldiers to the United Kingdom armed forces and I suspect there is barely a unit that does not have a Scottish presence. For more than a decade now, these men and women, along with their English, Welsh, Irish and, latterly, Commonwealth colleagues have served with distinction in Iraq and Afghanistan; it is an unbroken line of service which can be traced back through peacekeeping ­missions, numerous crises, two World Wars and beyond.

The synergy of our shared traditions, history and heritage has always been far stronger than its individual components and – as the report makes clear – it is not at all obvious that the loss of that synergy serves anyone’s interests, least of all the Scottish people. If Scotland ­becomes ­independent, servicemen, and their units within the rest of the UK, and in an ­independent Scottish nation, will have to forge new identities. Some will ­advocate that this will be for the better; I have ­concluded it will not.

The United Kingdom armed forces are currently in the midst of considerable and painful reductions in manpower and capability. Although it is by no means clear that Scottish servicemen and women would actually choose to join the armed forces of an independent Scotland, their potential loss would add to and extend that period of turmoil for many years to come. I am clear that risking our nation’s security in exchange for such a lengthy period of ­uncertainty is too high a price to pay.

As we see in other European states of comparable size, their armed forces do not enjoy the status or recognition of our own; they are invariably restricted to home duties and exercises. What few international operations they can undertake are normally very limited in scale and scope. There are exceptions of course and I considered myself fortunate to have a Danish battalion under my command in Helmand. However, small countries such as Denmark built up their military capability over many years when defence spending was considerably higher. As the report makes clear, the armed forces of an independent Scotland are unlikely to gain such operational experience. One might imagine some forces being available for peacekeeping duties perhaps or the provision of smaller units in specialist roles. But it is hard to see what more the deployable elements of the Armed Forces of an independent Scotland could do.

It is of course highly unlikely that Scotland will ever come under existential threat of invasion or subjugation. Today the British armed forces’ remit extends far beyond conventional “defence”. Instead they are employed in a range of general security-related roles: counter-terrorism, cyber security, aid to civil powers, defence diplomacy, disaster relief, to mention but some. The list of tasks in a world of hybrid conflict and multiple risks is long and growing. Pursuing these tasks helps secure the UK against very real 21st century threats, man-made and environmental. To meet this multiplicity of challenges the United Kingdom has forged, over many years, extensive and deep collective relationships with international organisations, such as Nato, and much more personal ones through the placement of individual officers and training teams abroad.

Our defence attachés, for example, work alongside their diplomatic colleagues in most embassies around the world, driving forward security and defence cooperation for mutual benefit, and gaining influence in global policy decisions. Within Nato we have large numbers of soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines serving in important and senior roles. The influence of these individuals is considerable and it stems from their experience, education and training in the United Kingdom armed forces. Across the Atlantic our very special relationship with the United States of America is founded largely on a unique intelligence and defence partnership. This sees us gaining huge amounts of intelligence material to aid the campaign against international terrorism, to prevent the spread of chemical and nuclear weapons and to deal with serious issues such as organised crime, the drugs trade and people trafficking – all of which, unfortunately, can have profound effect upon our day-to-day lives.

These are all endeavours which an independent Scotland would have to start from scratch. I cannot see how slicing up a competent and well established military will aid either the United Kingdom or an independent Scotland. Indeed I see very real risks to the people of Scotland, be it from the loss of jobs and the local economic impact that the inevitable removal of the Faslane naval base would bring, the huge costs necessary to start building the armed forces from afresh, the loss of access to sensitive intelligence materials and the inevitable dilution in the quality and number of the armed forces of this small island, which to date have had such a profound effect upon the course of world events.

The greatest wisdom that I have gleaned over 27 years as a soldier is that the best strategy is to win without necessarily having to fight: but when you do have to fight and you are required to engage the nation’s blood and treasure you do so with a full and unerring commitment. You have to show that you are not afraid to fight and that you have the capability to carry through your convictions. As your capability reduces, so do your strategic options. Deterrence and security is a function of scale. It is easy to argue from within the comfort of a nearly 300-year-old Union that an independent Scotland would only require a small fighting force. It is not likely to be so comfortable after you have jettisoned your allies and you are on your own. «