Hold Fire on the ‘Scottish Defence Force’

Jevon Whitby

Image © Andrew Higgins

This week saw Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond announce his ideal plan for a ‘Scottish Defence Force,’ should Scotland vote to become independent. Under the currently very vague plans, Scotland would retain one base of each type for a total strength of 20,000 Scottish troops. In acquiring control of a segment of the UK’s current military, Scotland would have control over its engagement, but would become a NATO ‘ally,’ rather than member.

For the SNP, Westminster control is an issue of pride, but more realistically: employment. The Scottish defence ‘community’ is set to rise by as much as 20,000 over the next eight years as British personnel are brought back from bases in Germany, many to Scottish bases.

Coalition attempts to cut the defence budget by an alleged 74% in Scotland with ‘massive and disproportionate’ effects in July promoted an angry resistance campaign, with Salmond arguing that Scotland’s geographic position and economic problems should give it extra protection when it comes to cutting the defence budget.

Foremost among the list problems will be the UK’s nuclear submarine naval base at Faslane on the Clyde. In the past home to Polaris (and now Trident), this controversial installation has long been opposed by many of Scottish MP’s and would likely need to be moved south of the border should Scotland become independent, in line with the SNP’s anti-nuclear stance.

Yet the important debate over an independent military descended considerably this week as Defence Secretary Philip Hammond proclaimed the defence force proposals to be ‘laughable,’ insisting that it would be impossible to simply ‘break off a little bit’ and that Scotland would have to share in the cost of deinstalling the Faslane facility. Salmond hit back accusing Westminster of ‘arrogance’ for wishing to send Scotland the clean-up bill for an English military decision forced on Scotland in 1963.

The saddest thing is that a very serious subject, national defence and its employees, has been so debased by the usual babble of criticisms and cheap-shots that with the independence debate, now seem to flow between Westminster and Holyrood on a weekly basis as each side engages in the one-upmanship of claiming the other should pay financially if Scotland votes ‘yes.’

Just to be clear, the argument is over the placement of an arsenal containing nuclear weaponry and 10,000 local jobs around Faslane. A ‘laughable’ topic for Westminster? Angus Robertson, Westminster SNP leader, declared ‘If London really cared so much about nuclear weapons systems perhaps they should have considered public opinion.’ This quip will hopefully be given the disdain it deserves; the idea that any government is not concerned about its nuclear weaponry is absurd.

So why has defence suddenly become another political weapon of the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ vote campaigns? Along with last week’s claim by Salmond that England ‘could not stop Scotland using Sterling,’ (another issue that earned a petty branding of ‘ludicrous’ from Westminster, this time from Alistair Darling) it is perhaps all part of a plan to draw attention to how separation would work logistically. By making voters imagine how Scotland would look without England, the SNP is doubtlessly hoping to make an independent Scotland appear more plausible.

This is not the first instance that the SNP has arguably used defence to ‘play politics:’ having argued aggressively against the Coalition’s closure of two Scottish air force bases (RAF Lossiemouth and RAF Kinloss) in July, Salmond now appears willing to accept a only single Scottish air force base under the new ‘plan,’ a distinction that was not lost on Labour’s Shadow Defence Secretary Jim Murphy, who labelled the SNP’s defence agenda as ‘bizarre.’

The correct time for the defence discussion should have been the transition period after a successful independence referendum. Should Scotland vote to be independent, then it has every right to dictate its own defence policy, and the price of complex logistical rearrangement can be negotiated accordingly. However to propose a ‘Scottish Defence Force’ to enhance the ‘yes’ vote’s credibility is in poor taste to those people whose jobs depend on a defence policy that looks beyond merely  wining an Autumn 2014 referendum.

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