If Scotland votes for independence and leaves the UK, what will be the shape of its defence force and its relationships with international security organisations such as NATO?
This week British Prime Minister David Cameron and Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond signed the Edinburgh Agreement laying the path towards a referendum for Scottish independence in the autumn of 2014. If the referendum succeeds, Scotland would become a new nation in the world's family of independent states.
Scotland's history, present and possible future is inherently linked to Great Britain's military history, with Scottish regiments playing a major role from the Zulu War to the current conflict in Afghanistan. With the referendum looming, this begs the question, what is the prospect for Scottish defence should it leave the United Kingdom?
The Scottish army disappeared following the Acts of Union in 1707 when it was combined with its English counterpart to create the British army. During the time since, the Scottish regiments played an important role in maintaining the British Empire and fought in colonial wars as the Empire began to dissolve. Scotland itself became a good recruiting ground for the British military and Scottish troops, sailors and airmen have become a fundamental component of Britain's ability to project power overseas.
The Scotland Act of 1998, giving Scotland a devolved status in the UK, did not pertain to the Scottish regiments or in anyway Scots' role in the British military. Nevertheless, the status of the Scottish regiments, with a long and proud tradition, became increasingly diminished as the British army went through a major reorganisation and shrinkage in 2004.The Defence White Paper Delivering Security in a Changing World
, combined the traditional regiments into the Royal Scottish Regiment, which now sits alongside the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards. Currently, the Scottish component of the British military can be seen in UK deployment to Afghanistan.
While the Scottish component of the British military went through its own changes, so have Scottish politics with the rise of the Scottish National Party. It came first to the Scottish executive in a minority government in 2007 with a subsequent majority in the 2011 elections to the Scottish parliament in Holyrood. The SNP ran on a referendum ticket prior to the 2007 and 2011 elections and took its majority in the latter elections as a call for a referendum on Scottish independence.
The domestic context is important in relation to the state of Scottish defence because party politics are likely to determine the nature of Scotland's relationship with the remainder of Britain should it secede. For example, while the main opposition parties, Labour and the Liberal Democrats, have sought federal solutions to the nationalist challenge and therefore leave the structure of the British military intact, the SNP have long run on an electoral ticket that challenges the British military and its presence in Scotland, especially the presence of nuclear weapons north of the English border. Should the referendum be passed, we should expect that SNP party platforms will inform how an independent Scotland would negotiate an exit from the British military.
In A' The Blue Bonnets: Defending an Independent Scotland
, the authors suggest how an independent Scottish Defence Force would be arranged. The report assumes that the Scottish SDF would be endowed with the land, sea and air bases that already exist in Scotland but what is less clear is how it would gain the assets – vehicles, armoury, weapons, etc – to complete a defence force.
The SNP had long stated before coming to power that it would rather have an independent and neutral foreign policy that would place Scotland outside of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. However, prior to the 2007 election, the SNP changed its long held policy and suggested that Scotland seek membership of all of the major security institutions of the North Atlantic and Europe. So, the assumption is that Scottish independence and resulting SDF would look similar to Scotland's contribution to the British military, although overall cheaper and with less power projection.
Scotland's political future still remains unclear should it become independent. The European Union, specifically European Commission President José Manuel Barroso, stated
in September 2012 that Scotland should not expect straight entry and membership. On the other hand NATO has not said anything given the delicate nature and link between national integrity and national security.
The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the other relevant organisation in Europe, would no doubt be open to an independent Scotland but that brings with it little in terms of what NATO or even the EU brings to the table. What NATO does bring is defence and in particular United States operational and tactical nuclear defence. Nevertheless, should Scotland seek NATO membership, it will undoubtedly receive it, although as I have said before here
, that means less and less overtime.
However, the UK has a special intelligence sharing relationship with the US, more so than any other European country. An independent Scotland, led by the SNP, would not be – nor currently is – trusted by the US as a reliable intelligence partner and the possibility of such is unlikely in the near to medium future. Perhaps this is a small problem for an independent Scotland. However, and this is vitally important, the relationship between the US and London would also suffer with the expectation that the UK intelligence community would be unable prevent 'leakage' north of the border.
This issue highlights an increasingly important question: what would the defence relationship be between an independent Scotland and the UK? The answer is difficult in the first instance. Scotland and Great Britain have had a long tradition of military cooperation, even if as a single state. We might expect Scotland to be a close supporter of the remaining UK in terms of diplomacy and shared political values.
Nevertheless, independence for Scotland also challenges the very foundation on which the prospect for defence cooperation exists. With a growing distance between Scottish nationalists and the British government, we should not assume 'British military-lite' when the signs point to a challenging strategic context that would greet a newly independent Scotland and a newly revised United Kingdom.
Dr David Galbreath is reader in international relations at the University of Bath in the United Kingdom and editor-in-chief of the European Security journal