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.
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