Friday, 12 September 2014

The Independence Referendum and Defence

By Dr Phillips O’Brien, Director, Scottish Centre for War Studies, University of Glasgow. This article first appeared in the spring 2014 edition of the RSGS's magazine, The Geographer.

The questions of defence and security, surprisingly to some, have been some of the most hotly debated and contentious of the independence referendum campaign. The sheer number of different topics connected with defence means that it has rarely been out of the news. There have been clashes over issues as diverse as the nuclear weapons now based in Faslane, shipbuilding on the Clyde, the future of the historic Scottish Regiments, and whether or not Scotland should be a member of the NATO alliance. Needless to say, with that many issues, different interest groups and political pressures have exerted themselves in many different ways.

One of the best ways to see these conflicting pressures is in the rather tortuous discussions over Faslane and Britain’s nuclear deterrent. The west of Scotland not only hosts all of Britain’s nuclear submarines, it also is the base for Britain’s nuclear weapons. The ‘Yes’ campaign has received consistent and energetic support from a group of campaigners, sometimes associated with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), which would like all nuclear weapons withdrawn from Scotland almost immediately after independence. Therefore the ‘Yes’ campaign has had to stress its antinuclear credentials regularly.

On the other hand, basic economics mean that the jobs attached to these facilities are important. At present, the MOD employs around 6,500 civilian and military personnel on the Clyde, and therefore it is one of the largest employers in one of the economically less well-off parts of the nation. This has led the ‘Yes’ campaign and the Scottish Government to try and craft an anti-nuclear policy that also would protect many of these jobs.


Since the launch of the Scottish Government’s White Paper, what is interesting is how the anti-nuclear stance, in the short term, has become a second priority to the protection of jobs. This can be seen in two parts of the document. In the first case, far from requiring that the rUK’s nuclear weapons be removed from Scotland as soon as possible, the Scottish Government actually set out a very flexible policy on Trident. While it was stated that the Government has a ‘view’ that the weapons should be removed by the end of the first Parliament (2020), this in no way is a hard and fast deadline. Instead, it opens the door for the nuclear weapons to remain in Scotland until the government of the rUK decides what it wishes to do with Trident. On the other hand, it would allow any Scottish government considerably more time to decide what it would base in those facilities once the nuclear weapons had been removed.

The second area was in the definition of a non-nuclear Scotland. The White Paper did not call for a non-nuclear policy along the lines of New Zealand, which bans all nuclear weapons from its soil and territorial waters at all times. Instead, anti-nuclear seems to be defined for Scotland as meaning that the Scottish government will not build, maintain or base nuclear weapons. However, there is no provision to ban them from visiting warships. This important proviso is a way of reassuring NATO, which defines itself as a nuclear alliance, that a Scottish government would take the necessary steps to make Scotland a co-operative part of the organization. In the end, the strong political pressure being placed by one element of the ‘Yes’ campaign seems to have lost out to the need to appeal to those employed by the MOD in the west of Scotland, and crucial international partners such as the United States.

Another way that the politics of independence seem to have arisen is the question of shipbuilding on the Clyde. In November 2013, the UK Government announced that all of the Type 26 Frigates (the next generation, most advanced warship that Britain will build during the next 20 years) will be constructed on the Clyde. Yet, at the same time, they announced that the actual construction process will not begin in earnest until 2015. It seems to be a classic example of a carrot and stick political approach to the question. The west of Scotland shipyards have received priority over those in England – Portsmouth will now be downgraded to a facility that can refurbish existing warships but will have a great deal of difficulty constructing new ones. At the same time, those communities eagerly anticipating that work were made aware that if independence were to be voted in, the contracts could still be shifted.

Together, these two issues show the different political impulses driving the discussion of defence within the independence debate. Ultimately it is the economic benefits of independence or remaining in the Union that have become the focus of the debate.