Leader comment: Would independent Scotland support a big military?

Soldiers from the 2nd Battalion The Royal Regiment of Scotland leave their base at Glencorse Barracks in Penicuik in December last year, on their way to Iraq for a six-month tour (Picture: Ian Georgeson)
Soldiers from the 2nd Battalion The Royal Regiment of Scotland leave their base at Glencorse Barracks in Penicuik in December last year, on their way to Iraq for a six-month tour (Picture: Ian Georgeson)
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While it is widely accepted that the United Kingdom will never again be a global superpower, it still has one of the world’s most powerful armed forces.

The Global Firepower ranking for 2018 puts the UK military in sixth place, behind the US, Russia, China, India and France. And some experts suggest this ranking actually underestimates the capabilities of technologically advanced countries with Professor Malcolm Chalmers, deputy director-general of the Royal United Services Institute (Rusi), suggesting in 2014 that even China would be “out-matched qualitatively in a ‘straight fight’ with the UK in an equidistant location”. The UK is also one of only eight Nato countries that spend more than two per cent of GDP on defence.

So, it would appear that the UK punches more than its weight when it comes to military matters.

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However, it has now emerged that the number of Ministry of Defence jobs in Scotland fell by more than 12 per cent to 13,930 between 2012 and this year, with the SNP’s Maree Todd describing the cuts as “devastating” and adding that there was “barely a community that isn’t being hammered as the Tories grind down our armed forces [and] hollow out Scotland’s proud military past”. This, however, begs the question of what Scotland’s military would be like if it became an independent country.

The Sustainable Growth Commission report says Scotland’s armed forces would number “around 12,600” on a pro-rata population share of the UK’s current strength, with a further civilian defence staff of less than 700.

So it would appear from these two sets of figures that, despite the reduction in numbers, Scotland still has a slightly higher number of armed forces’ jobs than it would have on a pro-rata basis.

Of course, as the SNP rightly points out, Scotland has a long military history and could choose to increase the number of defence jobs if it became independent.

But the Growth Commission report also forecasts several years of tough public spending choices after independence – described as “austerity” by Labour – until Scotland could catch up with the better economic performance of small countries like Denmark, New Zealand, North and Ireland.

So, in those circumstances, would the public be willing to maintain an military that enables Scotland to also punch significantly above its weight? It seems unlikely.

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