The SNP has launched a reboot of its defence policy in anticipation of a future independence referendum, aiming to convince voters that the UK is failing to properly defend Scotland’s North Atlantic doorstep.
Nationalists will argue that the Ministry of Defence has neglected the UK’s responsibilities in the “High North” and left the door open to incursions by Russian naval forces.
The claims are being put directly to Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson in the SNP’s first formal submission to an MoD consultation on defence strategy.
Party sources believe they can turn an area seen as a weakness in the 2014 referendum – with the SNP’s defence plans offering little appeal beyond voters who wanted to see the UK’s Trident nuclear weapons leave the Clyde – into an asset.
The submission to the Modernising Defence Programme (MDP) consultation will begin a programme of work with the long-term aim of filling gaps in the 2014 independence white paper Scotland’s Future.
Focusing on the defence of the North Atlantic amid growing concern over Russian aggression, this week’s submission to the MDP argues the UK should take on a greater role from smaller states such as Norway.
The SNP calls for the number of P-8 Poseidon maritime surveillance aircraft – with nine new planes destined for RAF Lossiemouth to replace the scrapped Nimrod fleet – to be increased further.
It questions the UK’s decision not to bid for a new Nato Atlantic Command, which nationalists argue HMNB Clyde or Lossiemouth would have been “ideally located” to host. Insiders expect the HQ to go to Virginia, in the US.
And it highlights the lack of any surface warships north of the south coast of England, calling on the MoD to address an “anomaly” that meant it took 24 hours for a Royal Navy ship to intercept a Russian carrier that entered the Moray Firth in 2014.
In his letter to the Defence Secretary, SNP defence spokesman Stewart McDonald writes: “Inexplicably, our very own doorstep merited no real mention in the 2010 or 2015 SDSR [Strategic Defence and Security Review], and I would hope this would be addressed in the MDP with a clear statement of the centrality of the North Atlantic to the UK’s defence and security strategy.
“Of all the Government soundbites around Brexit, ‘Global Britain’ has often been the most difficult to quantify – but any ‘Global Britain’ must surely start with being a good neighbour.”
McDonald says “the Royal Navy has always been seen as the best way for the UK to contribute to Northern European security” but criticises the “historic low number of escort vessels, none of which are based in Scotland”.
The beefed-up policy is being supported by a series of conversations with governments of small states across Europe, with new relationships being formed since the SNP’s 2015 election landslide. Foreign governments are taking greater account of the SNP’s views on defence and foreign policy now that they are the third party at Westminster.
Party sources claim new relationships with European neighbours may ease fears in foreign capitals about an independent Scotland’s foreign and defence policies.
The SNP is also exploring how other innovative ideas, such as multi-year defence budgets, could be adapted for the UK or applied in an independent Scotland.
In Denmark and Sweden, defence spending is set in a cross-party “agreement” that covers a full electoral cycle, to take some of the politics out of the process. Denmark, which is a member of Nato, has traditionally concluded defence agreements on a five-year cycle signed off by the majority of parties in parliament.
While the UK’s much larger defence budget and rapidly changing operational demands make a multi-year consensus difficult, SNP sources believe the approach could avoid sudden cuts like the scrapping of the Nimrod fleet, and forced design changes to the UK’s two new aircraft carriers.
The party is also examining the approach to welfare for enlisted troops and their families in Denmark, where the armed forces have a union similar to the police federations in the UK.
But opposition parties were derisive of the new SNP initiative. Kirstene Hair, the Conservative MP whose Angus constituency includes RM Condor, said SNP criticisms of defence policy were “laughable”.
“They are the party that would scrap Trident, that was opposed to Nato until 2012, and that is slapping a tax on thousands of hardworking military personnel.
“The UK government has just announced a £132 million expansion of RAF Lossiemouth in Moray, which will soon be home to nine P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft. It has also been steadfast it is commitment to Scottish shipbuilders, ensuring 20 years of guaranteed work on the Clyde.
“The SNP’s submission is a clear attempt to pursue their narrow nationalist agenda.”
The MoD said the UK’s strategic position in the North Atlantic was strong, with the arrival of the P-8s and the opening of a new RAF radar station in Shetland. A spokesman said: “The UK Government is spending billions of pounds in Scotland to keep Scotland and the UK safe.”