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International Relations Defense

Implications of Independence: Scottish Defence

Referendum consultation - press conference
Referendum consultation, press conference. Photo: Scottish Government/flickr.

When the Scottish National Party (SNP) won the majority of seats in the 2007 parliamentary elections, the movement for Scottish independence had finally gained momentum. With the referendum now set for 18 September 2014, the idea of an independent Scotland, once a distant dream of SNP-supporters, has now become a realistic possibility. Although opinion polls currently predict an outcome favoring “devolution-plus” – extensive regionalisation and decentralisation – rather than fully-fledged independence, the possible implications of a “Yes” vote are worth considering given the wide-ranging consequences of such a result, particularly in the area of defence.

A pro-independence decision would likely lead to uncertainty caused by a range of policy conundrums not only for Scotland but for the rest of the UK. In an effort to alleviate such fears, the Scottish government has announced that it will publish a White Paper on the possible future structure of an independent Scotland. But while the Scottish government has adopted an optimistic view, 10 Downing Street has already released a report emphasizing the possible negative repercussions, were Scotland to terminate the more than 300-year old Union.

Due to its security implications, national defence is a particularly touchy subject. While the SNP has long opposed NATO membership (a position it reversed prior to the 2007 election), a newly independent Scotland would definitely have its own armed forces.  However, as the most Union-focused among the United Kingdom’s public services, dividing the armed forces to create defence structures for a newly independent Scotland would likely prove difficult, potentially causing substantial organizational disruption. The SNP envisions a 15,000 personnel-strong Scottish military with 5, 000 reserves, largely drawn from the UK mobile armored brigade which would need to be moved to Scotland. This force would largely focus on territorial defence and participation in peacekeeping operations, and would have a budget similar to countries like Norway and Denmark.

While a newly independent Scotland may be able to continue working with existing land, sea and air bases, considerable costs would likely be involved in procuring other assets such as weapons and vehicles. According to the SNP, in the case of independence, Scotland would require new submarines and frigates, as well as maritime patrol aircraft, which it would need to buy together with the rest of the UK. In addition, Scotland would need to build its own intelligence services largely from scratch, as well as capabilities to combat cyber-crime, among other things. In regard to its multilateral relations, as Scotland would be established as a new country, its membership in the EU, international organisations such as the UN and the OSCE, and defence alliances such as NATO would most likely have to be re-negotiated.

Given its long history of military cooperation, security cooperation with England is a likely scenario in the case of independence. However, with current strategic considerations largely determined by domestic politics – the SNP, for example, routinely criticises the presence of British military on Scottish soil – the nature of such defence cooperation is far from clear.

Disagreement between the rest of the UK and an independent Scotland would likely arise over the UK’s nuclear deterrent and its future in Scotland. Alex Salmond, Scotland’s current First Minister, has repeatedly called for the dismantling of the UK’s nuclear arsenal, in line with his party’s anti-nuclear position and focus on renewable energy. With the whole Trident nuclear fleet currently stationed at the Clyde submarine base near Glasgow in Scotland, its removal and resulting nuclear disarmament would have serious implications for the UK.

As a member of the nuclear club, Britain’s government under David Cameron has been defending the country’s missile system, calling for Trident’s renewal. Given the referendum next year and the SNP’s anti-nuclear stance, however, the UK government has decided to postpone reviewing Trident’s future. In addition, discussions about a very costly removal of Trident – estimates amount to more than £3.5 billion – come at a time when the UK itself is grappling with harsh cuts in defence spending, the biggest since 1991.

Beyond its deterrent policy, the UK may also face challenges in the international arena, having to assure worried allies of its power projection capabilities in case Scotland leaves the union, and having to guard against a possible backlash following the referendum by countries seeking to exploit the confusion that could ensue.

With the outcome of the referendum on Scottish independence far from certain, these considerations and challenges might never come into play. If they do, however, uncertainty caused by complications and disruptions involved in the military breakup and establishment of a Scottish defence structure will likely be the immediate result. This means that the potential independence of Scotland could have major consequences not only for the country itself but for the UK as a whole.


For additional reading on this topic please see:

Scotland, Independence and the EU

Accommodating an Independent Scotland

Referendum on Independence for Scotland


For more information on issues and events that shape our world please visit the ISN’s featured editorial content and Security Watch.

2 replies on “Implications of Independence: Scottish Defence”

Scottish independence will indeed require a great deal of change in the defence structures of Scotland and the remainder of the UK (rUK).

The debate over independence and it’s effect on defence is changing all the time, which partly explains a number of understandable errors in the article, but I’d like to take issue with one point which gives an incorrect view of the current situation.

You say that “the SNP, for example, routinely criticises the presence of British military on Scottish soil”. In fact, the SNP supports the presence of UK forces in Scotland, and indeed is very critical of the UK government reductions in the personnel based here, and the lack of capablilities which are important to Scotland; for instance the astonishing fact that despite Scotland’s geographic position, the UK now has no maritime reconnaissance aircraft.

It is only the presence of the nuclear deterrent (Trident) in Scotland which the SNP objects to, as a party supporting unilateral disarmament.

The SNP has looked to the Danish and Norwegian models for a future defence force, and would expect to inherit some of the equipment it will need from the UK as part of the process of negotiating independence – remember, Scotland already part-owns all of the UK’s moveable assets, approx 9% by population share.

It is Trident which will cause the greatest problems, and these are mostly problems for the rUK, not Scotland. The SNP government is committed to the removal of Trident within a short timescale following independence, perhaps as little as three years. In this, polls suggest it has the full support of the Scottish people.

The current UK government claims (although this seems unlikely) that it is not making contingency plans to move Trident in the event of Scottish independence. However, independent studies suggest that there is nowhere in rUK which could accommodate the submarines, and that basing them in France or the US could be in breach of the non-proliferation treaties. Even if an rUK location can be found, the costs of moving will be gigantic and may place in doubt the affordability of renewing Trident at all.

Scottish independence therefore places the rUK’s nuclear deterrent in question, and creates new questions over whether rUK will inherit/keep the UK’s place on the UN Security Council for instance.

Opinion polls DO NOT “currently predict an outcome favoring “devolution-plus” – extensive regionalisation and decentralisation – rather than fully-fledged independence” because no such thing is on offer. It is YES independence or No and continued dependence. on Westminster with the same very limited powers continuing for the Scottish Parliament.

Putting that in your first paragraph stopped me cold. If you don’t know that or so substantially misrepresent an essential point, your article could only be seriously flawed. The flaws and skewing vcontinued all the way through to the last paragraph in which you FALSELY assert: “If they do, however, uncertainty caused by complications and disruptions involved in the military breakup and establishment of a Scottish defence structure will likely be the immediate result.”

The breakup of the UK and the withdrawal of Scotland is projected to take 18 months to two years. There will be no “immediate result” as the military breakup and the establishment of a Scottish defence structure will have ample time to be put into place.

Huge FAIL on your article which is seriously biased.

As for your tags,, the word is INDEPENDENCE not “separatism”.

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