Leaders: SNP defence | Edinburgh Trams

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THE new clarity provided by the SNP yesterday on the defence force required by an independent Scotland is a most welcome contribution to the referendum campaign.

Former Royal Marine and now SNP minister Keith Brown, along with Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, have brought some much-needed detail to this crucial area of the national debate.

The SNP’s decision to put some flesh on the bones of its defence plans follows the publication of two think tank reports just days apart, both highly sceptical about the efficacy of an independent Scotland’s defence capabilities. The reports, from the Scotland Institute and the Henry Jackson Society, left many questions hanging in the air. It was right that the SNP moved to address them now, and not wait until the Scottish Government white paper expected in the autumn.

Among the details that can now form the basis for a more informed debate are the £2.5 billion defence budget envisioned for an independent Scotland, and an SNP assessment of what military hardware would be required to provide the necessary air and sea patrol capabilities.

Transitional arrangements were also addressed. In particular, the SNP ministers yesterday provided unequivocal backing for the party’s position on ridding an independent Scotland of the Trident nuclear deterrent currently based in Scottish waters at Faslane and in the high-security MoD weapons storage facility at Coulport .

Much of the debate about defence and independence has speculated that Trident could become a bargaining counter in the post-referendum negotiations with what remained of the UK (rUK). This has been repeated so many times it has become one of the orthodoxies of political discourse on the subject.

Ms Sturgeon has sought to draw a line under this. Trident would go from Scottish waters, and go as soon as safely possible. The move to England or another part of the rUK, she indicated, should take no more than a year or two. This was an assertion immediately challenged by Defence Secretary Philip Hammond, who insisted it could take a decade or more to prepare a suitable alternative base.

The Deputy First Minister has called for negotiations with the UK government on this issue in advance of the referendum. This idea has merit. The more informed the Scottish public is about its possible future as a nation state, the better able they will be to make their minds up come September 2014.

But pre-negotiations carry a degree of political risk for the Yes campaign. If such talks were to take place and resulted in an impasse, with the MoD resolute in its position that Trident could not be safely moved so quickly, voters would be left with an impression of an independent Scotland immediately at loggerheads with its closest neighbour over the most basic aspect of statehood, namely defence.

On track for a Christmas present

WHEN Edinburgh folk are writing their Christmas lists for Santa this year, and enjoying the contemplation of gifts to come, it is unlikely that top of anyone’s list will be “a fully-functioning tram route, up and running in time for Christmas”. None the less, as we report today, that is what the citizens of Scotland’s capital city can apparently look forward to.

For years the Edinburgh tram project has been a punchline to a hundred jokes, a by-word for cost over-runs, strategic errors and political cack-handedness. It will come as a blessed relief for Edinburgh residents when the trams move from being the reason for endless traffic jams and blocked roads and begin to become a part of normal life in the city.

It will be a relief especially to the thousands of homes and businesses along the tram route who have had their lives and livelihoods disrupted – sometimes repeatedly (as work had needed to be re-done because of errors by the contractors) and sometimes unnecessarily (as on the preparatory work along the extended route to Leith, which was later cancelled).

For the sanity of everyone in Edinburgh, the city needs to move past the controversies that have dogged this project. If the trams run ahead of schedule, then this newspaper will lead the applause. The sooner this episode is in the past the better.

Whether Edinburgh can put this behind it so easily, however, remains to be seen. It is by no means clear if the sums add up on the business case for the trams’ profitability. It is to be hoped that the rumbling of trams along the city’s streets will not become a daily reminder to Edinburgh residents that they will still be paying for this for many years to come.