Our constitution, July 2012: Scottish Defence Forces

“Provision for Scottish Defence Forces under control of Scottish government”

Today in the Scotland on Sunday, Euan McColm takes up his keyboard and goes to battle for the Scottish military

One of the ways in which die-hard SNP members kid themselves that their party is still in the slightest bit radical is through their approach to defence. The Nationalists’ broad “nukes out, troops home” mantra may, from time to time, chime with a wider public mood. But it’s a stance adopted in the days when the notion that an SNP politician might ever have to seriously consider the defence of an independent Scotland was laughable.

One of the big things that will change for Scotland if we become independent: The UK is about 22nd in the world for population size. But Scotland, which is between five and six million people, will be somewhere between 110th and 118th for population size. Our neighbours on this list won’t be France and Italy any more; they’ll be countries the size of Nicaragua or Denmark or Eritrea, Kyrgyzstan or Slovakia or Finland, Singapore or Turkmenistan or Norway.

Everyone knows this – the SNP keep pointing at Norway and Denmark, European democracies the size of Scotland, to prove that bigger isn’t necessarily better.

But one change which this sizing down makes inevitable, which I think any realistic person will have to accept:

Countries the size Scotland will be don’t go to war for fun.

The easy if expensive way for a politician to look like a hard man, a “political realist”, and to win an election, is to go to war and either win it, or have corporate media not reporting that you’re losing it. Margaret Thatcher took full advantage of the electoral opportunity Argentina gave her in 1982. The Bush administration went right on claiming that success in Iraq was just six months away from March 2003 to November 2008.

This is not an option open to smaller nations. Euan McColm doesn’t seem to have grasped this. He accuses the SNP of “living in the past”, and then argues that it takes “serious thought” to consider how “a small island, vulnerable to attack, can realistically operate with two separate armed forces”. In short, McColm is harking back to the 1940s and earlier. Seriously:

It’s one thing to refuse to join in something like war in Iraq, but quite another when talking about the defence of these islands.

McColm never explains who he thinks might be planning to invade Scotland. True, the US does have a pattern of invading small nations with oil that have independent ideas about what to do with their resources, but does anyone seriously suppose – NATO membership aside – that the US would invade Scotland to get the oil?

Take the Falkland Islands. Argentina and the UK could afford to go to war over possession of the Islas Malvinas. But if Norway and Scotland had a border dispute over Shetland and the Orkneys, the Permanent Court of Arbitration would be a better solution than for two small countries, especially both NATO members, to make war on each other. Even over oil.

Scotland will have a nice GDP and income coming in from oil (and whisky!) perfectly satisfactory for economic independence. But not anything that justifies squandering quantities on a military budget Scotland will never use.

I don’t know what percentage of the Scottish population have jobs in or depending on the UK’s military spending. One of the key things to be sorted post yes-vote would be ensuring that no one became involuntarily unemployed just because Scotland’s not going to be squandering money on military forces and weapons that are never going to be used: and rUK probably won’t be buying Royal Navy vessels and other equipment from Scotland any more.

For everyone enrolled in the military, there would be a decision to be made that’s partly dependent on the rUK government’s decision about dual nationality between Scotland and rUK – that is, will someone enlisted in the UK military pre-independence, be able to serve out their time in rUK military post-independence, if they so wish? That question would be for the Westminster government to answer.

But assuming that option is open at least for Scots who enrolled in the UK military pre-independence, I presume each Scot in the military would have to make the decision:

  • To leave the military forces altogether (I think honourable discharge ought to be an option, under the circumstances)
  • To continue to serve in the rUK military (setting aside questions of citizenship / dual citizenship for the moment)
  • To transfer to the Scottish low-budget military

The Westminister government has, perhaps in a similar line of thought that John Major’s government had about presenting the Stone of Scone back to Scotland, preserved four Scottish regiments which, it’s been claimed, unfairly preserves Scottish regimental traditions over English regimental traditions. But it’s not as if Scots necessarily join Scottish regiments.

The Herald claimed on Friday that there was reason to keep four Scottish regiments, and adds:

The outcome announced yesterday is partly a reflection of the political leverage of the SNP, though the Nationalists’ continued insistence that the Government turn the clock back and restore all six of the old regiments, is neither practical nor sensible. Some sympathy is due to other battalions, such as the now- doomed 2nd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, which has the best recruitment record in the Army, when Scottish battalions with major recruitment shortfalls have been spared the axe. Ballooning the part-time Territorial Army up to 30,000 is intended partly to compensate for the reduction in the standing army. This plan looks fine on paper. Nevertheless, it is a gamble. In the current economic climate, how many employers will be sanguine about their high fliers disappearing to fight (or keep the peace) in some foreign field?

For a small country which will not be fighting any grand wars, a coherent system of support for a part-time volunteer military mostly staffed by volunteers seems to be the logical way to go. Further, a cultural rethink of what the Scottish military would do and be for would seem to be advisable. What’s worrying for the UK military is that Philip Hammond is out-loud proposing that there should be more dependence on “private military contractors”: aka mercenaries.

If Scotland becomes independent, how much is that likely to matter? Neither the size of the army nor the sum of military spending will put Scotland into the mad nations who try to compete with the US’s military folly, and a good thing too. I am more sympathetic to Andrew Martin’s point of view about war than I am of the London Olympics becoming a militarised zone and calling it “peacekeeping” or “anti-terrorism”. Andrew Martin, on Eric Sykes and his generation of comedians who “couldn’t believe they weren’t dead”:

” The thing about the Goons was that it was both, and a whole generation subscribed to their take on the war as something horrific, but also absurd.

As a student of those comics I have developed a form of snobbery that says there’s something missing from all subsequent comedy, and what is missing is a war. To refine the position: yes, there has been very good comedy since then, but the best of it – Beyond the Fringe, Monty Python, Eddie Izzard, Chris Morris – was directly influenced by the Goons, which arose from the war.

If President Obama decides to attack Iran and David Cameron decides he can’t do less than Tony Blair in sending UK forces along with US forces, then that’s going to cause some logistical and some human problems at independence, because this will all need to get worked out while rUK troops are still committed to fighting another pointless American war in the Middle East – and however pointless the conflict, the soldiers and other forces serving on the ground will have feelings about having to leave or losing comrades because of the referendum, because there is no possible reason in the world why Scotland should decide it’s going to join the US war against Iran. NATO members are not required to back the US up when it attacks another nation: NATO membership only requires support when a country is attacked.

The nuclear weapons/nuclear power issue gets a whole constitutional post of its own, later this month, but Euan McColm does have considerable ire for the idea that Scotland might follow the Non-Proliferation Treaty and decline to keep hosting rUK’s nuclear weapons:

But behind the scenes, the SNP leadership knows the removal of nuclear submarines from Faslane would be a logistical nightmare, particularly if, as some in the party believe, the Nationalists are ready to ditch opposition to membership of Nato at their autumn conference. Some Nationalists have said that an independent Scotland could be both nuclear-weapon free and a member of Nato, citing examples of other non-nuke member countries. But those countries didn’t have billions of pounds of Nato weaponry already installed in a specific location for strategic reasons.

It is absolutely no secret that moving nuclear weapons from Scotland to an as-yet unbuilt base in England or Wales will be a logistical impossibility in the time schedule of two years from Yes vote to independence, if Scotland votes yes.

But the Non-Proliferation Treaty, to which the UK is a signatory,

obligates the five acknowledged nuclear-weapon states (the United States, Russian Federation, United Kingdom, France, and China) not to transfer nuclear weapons, other nuclear explosive devices, or their technology to any non-nuclear-weapon state. Nuclear weapon States Parties are also obligated, under Article VI, to “pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.” Non-nuclear-weapon States Parties undertake not to acquire or produce nuclear weapons or nuclear explosive devices.

Lawfully, if Scotland votes Yes, neither independent Scotland nor rUK has any choice: by binding international treaty, rUK cannot transfer nuclear weapons to the non-nuclear state of Scotland, and Scotland cannot accept them.

Nor, in any realistic assessment of Scotland’s defence needs post-independence, is there any need for them. Indeed, if Scotland votes Yes, this would be an ideal opportunity for the rUK government of 2015 to consider if there’s any need for the UK to have nuclear weapons…

I am afraid I have failed to consider the devolved aspects of this part of the Scottish Constitution. This is, as you may have guessed, one of the most appealling possibilities of independence to me: a chance to move firmly away from the sucking maw of the military industrial complex. In all honesty, as with treaties and war, for a devolved Scotland this aspect of the Constitution would be a moral statement without legal force. Perhaps, a moral statement worth making.

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Filed under Elections, Oil, Scottish Constitution, Scottish Culture, Scottish Politics, War

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