A Plea for a Scottish Defence Institute

by Elias Blum

An independent Scotland, like almost all other nations, would have to have its own armed forces and provide for its own defence and security.

There are a range of choices open to an independent Scotland in terms of its military organisation. At the outset, there are some basic high-level decisions that need to be made about the size and shape of the armed forces, and in a democracy these decisions must be rooted in a fairly broad political and public consensus about Scotland’s strategic interests and foreign policy orientation.

Scotland’s priorities might be rather different from those of the UK. These decisions must be considered not from the perspective of a UK region, but from that of a relatively small, maritime, northern European nation.

From a naval perspective, the (UK) Royal Navy since 1945 has mostly spent its money on nuclear submarines and global power-projection capability (aircraft carriers, landing ships, destroyers and large frigates). That makes sense, given the UK’s long slow retreat from empire, its desire for ‘Blue Water’ capability, and its pugilistic attitude to foreign intervention from Aden to Iraq. However, the UK has neglected investment in modern  offshore patrol vessels that are optimised for constabulary, anti-terrorism and security duties; the only one the UK does have – the ironically named HMS Clyde – is permanently based in the Falkland Islands. This is despite the fact that Scotland has 10,000 miles of coastline and an extensive Exclusive Economic Zone that are often left inadequately defended.  I cannot speak about land or air warfare, although I expect that similar principles apply; we have the armed forces of a thinly stretched belligerent empire on the wane, not those of a small, peaceable, northern European democracy on the rise.

There’s also the question of how the administration, logistics and support of Scottish armed forces should be arranged. That means there are a lot of potential savings that could be redistributed to other parts of the budget.

For example, the Royal Navy provides accommodation for its personnel, either in naval barracks for single people or in married quarters for families. This is a product of a time when the navy had a global reach, and people had to be relocated around the world every few years. In contrast, a Scottish Navy might only have one major (Faslane) and one minor (Rosyth) base, and people might expect to serve their whole career in a much more limited geographical area. In that case, it might be reasonable to expect them, like police officers and firefighters, to find their own accommodation. An increase in pay would be necessary, but would be more than outweighed by savings on the maintenance and administration of a huge MOD housing stock.

Likewise, the armed forces currently provide a boarding school allowance, on the assumption that while Tommy and Jack were defending the Empire in Burma or Belize, little Johnny Jr is being properly beaten into shape by prefects at an expensive boarding school. That seems completely unnecessary for Scottish armed forces, geared towards home defence and operating primarily from their home base.

However, I find myself quite alone in even asking these questions and opening up this line of thought. There’s a sore need for more intellectual work in this area. All we have seen so far is an occasional critical comment about the UK government closing military bases or reorganising Scottish regiments. That is really neither here nor there when one is trying to build a convincing case for a viable and successful Scottish state. Just as Scotland needs a constitutional think tank to prepare the institutional way for an independent democracy, we also need a Defence Institute that can pool expertise, conduct research, and provide non-partisan space for informed open debate on all aspectes of an independent Scotland’s defence and security policy.