Nemo me impune lacessit: defending an independent Scotland

14 March 2013

3:38 PM

14 March 2013

3:38 PM

Sometimes I wish Conservative cabinet ministers would couch their arguments in favour of the Union in terms of principle, not process or drab accountancy. Philip Hammond, the unimpressive Secretary of State for Defence, is the latest minister to warn that some of the perfectly solvable problems that are an inescapable feature of unwinding the United Kingdom are in fact so intractable that it’s a fool’s mission to even think about resolving them.

Mr Hammond’s interview with the Daily Telegraph today is but the latest example of this question-begging. He appears to believe that Scottish independence is an idea so obviously ridiculous that it effectively refutes itself without the need for proper argument. This is not actually the case.

So Mr Hammond mocks the likely configuration of any future Scottish Defence Force. That’s his prerogative, I suppose, but this breezy scoffing does not suggest any meaningful engagement with the issue.  ‘Join the Navy and see the Clyde’ he quips, seemingly oblivious to the fact that, since he is presiding over deep cuts to Britain’s defence capability, he’s in no great position to be casting aspersions in any direction, let alone the SNP’s. Never mind, you see:

‘The Defence Secretary told the Daily Telegraph the Nationalists’ plans to take a share of the UK’s defence assets would also leave Scotland with one frigate and only a few planes to protect the entire nation.

He will also use a speech in Edinburgh today to accuse the SNP of taking a “significant gamble” with a separate Scotland’s security by assuming they could recruit and arm enough servicemen for new armed forces.’

Och, this is havers. It is certainly true that many Scots presently serving in the British armed forces might choose to remain in the UK defence set-up (just as the UK army still offers a home to citizens of the Irish Republic) but it seems most improbable that, almost alone in the developed world, an independent Scotland would be unable to staff its defence forces.

As gambles go, this is one worth lumping upon. According to Mr Hammond, however:

‘Half a destroyer would be no use to anyone, neither would be one frigate. You cannot build a naval force on that because ships need refitting. In practice, they would have to decide about what they were going to do and what they would not.’

Well, indeed. But how is deciding what they are going to do and what they are not going to do any different to the decisions Mr Hammond has to take – indeed, is taking – about the future configuration of the United Kindgom’s armed forces? It is no different at all. Presumably, however, he thinks the UK government is capable of making these decisions (and possibly even able to make correct decisions!). There seems no good reason why the government of an independent Scotland should not be equally capable of matching defence resources to defence needs.

The Telegraph appears to have a bee in its glengarry about all this, however. Yesterday the paper published an article by Paul Cornish, professor of Strategic Studies at Exeter University, criticising the SNP’s “sketchy plans” for Scotland’s defence. I’m afraid that it was, at best, only half-persuasive.

The SNP’s present notion is that Scotland would inherit a share of the UK’s present defence assets and subsequently spend approximately £2.5bn a year on defence. As a share of GDP that’s on the low end of the NATO spectrum but not so low as to be utterly inadequate. That said, I suspect the true bill  – especially in the transition period – is likely to prove rather higher. (By way of comparison, Denmark spends roughly £3bn a year on defence.) Still, here’s Professor Cornish:

What could Scotland’s taxpayers get for their money? They are very unlikely to be in the market for large warships, modern combat aircraft and so on, because of the considerable costs associated with training and maintenance. And it is difficult, in any case, to see what contribution two or three frigates, or half a dozen combat aircraft could usefully make to the security of Scotland’s land mass and its people’s interests. What is more realistic is a fleet of inshore patrol boats and support vessels (probably built outside Scotland because its naval shipyards will have ceased to be viable), with tasks limited to customs inspections, counter-narcotics patrolling, visits to offshore oil and gas facilities, and maritime rescue. As for air power, Scotland’s low-budget air force might comprise a small fleet of helicopters, working in conjunction with the Scottish coastguard, as well as a few medium-sized transport aircraft which could be used for aid delivery or for charter to UN operations and the like.

More ambitiously, Scotland’s army would be organised into two Multi-Role Brigades; one at full strength and one reserve. If the strength of each of these brigades is about 5,000, and if they must cover all the usual functions of a ground force (fighting troops, communications, medical support, logistics and supply), while maintaining a viable reserve, then the deployable strength on an international peacekeeping operation might be little more than a battle group (or at the very most two) of about 700-900 combat-ready soldiers, to be replaced after some months by troops fresh from training. A force of this size might find it difficult to mount a non-combatant evacuation operation from a Scottish diplomatic mission in a conflict zone; another country or organisation would have to help in such dire circumstances.

Well, of course Scotland is not likely to be “in the market for large warships“. What possible or even semi-plausible need for them is there likely to be? Of course there are uncertainties and many of these cannot be answered until the moment for decision is actually thrust upon us. Nevertheless, Scotland’s defence needs are likely to be relatively modest.

Moreover, the ability to deploy “little more” than a couple of battle groups at any one time is not as wounding or humiliating an accusation as it seems. For all the economies of scale the UK enjoys, Her Majesty’s government now struggles, as we have seen, to maintain a 15,000 strong force in the field for any length of time. A Scottish army capable of maintaining a rotation of 1,200 troops overseas would, broadly speaking, pound for pound or man for man, be in line with present UK capabilities.

International comparisons support this view. The Irish Defence Forces are sometimes – and unkindly – considered a kind of toy army. Nevertheless the Republic of Ireland maintained a rotating force of 700 troops in Lebanon for more than 20 years as part of the UN’s peacekeeping forces. And despite this commitment Dublin was still able to contribute troops to other UN peacekeeping missions.

As a NATO member (putatively), Scotland might require a greater range of military options than the Republic of Ireland but, on a proportional basis, it is hard to look at relevant international comparisons such as New Zealand, Belgium or the Czech Republic and not think that, even as just a sketch, the SNP’s proposals are wildly unrealistic.

Indeed, if one presumes that Scotland would inherit a reasonable share of UK defence hardware one might think the Scottish defence forces would, at least initially, be better equipped than most of their comparable peers.  Clearly this would be a matter for negotiation. I would expect that leasing Faslane to the rump UK for, say, 25 years, would be a useful bargaining chip to help Scotland secure a sensible settlement.

Still, if the defence-related case for the Union is pretty weak then so too are some parts of the defence-related argument for independence. Alex Salmond tells us that independence means Scottish troops would never again be sent to Iraq or any other non-UN mandated conflict. (Never mind that the Iraq War did proceed on a UN mandate. Rightly or not.) This is poppycock too, not least since it’s a promise Mr Salmond is in no position to either give or honour.

The Scottish parliament’s debate on the Iraq War may have been inconsequential. Nevertheless it produced a vote supporting military action. Some nationalists seem to suggest it was not a “real” result because Labour MSPs’ chief aim was to avoid embarrassing Tony Blair. Be that as it may, the war commanded a majority at Holyrood and it is perfectly possible that an independent Scotland – of unknown governance – would, had it existed at the time, also endorsed the war. After all, some 40 countries sent at least some troops to Iraq.

So the “no more wars” argument is, I think, specious. Better simply to say that such interventions would require a majority in the independent Scottish parliament before they could proceed and that, naturally, such decisions would be made on a case by case basis and with a view to the country’s NATO commitments.

Not that defence issues will determine the outcome of the referendum. Nevertheless it is plainly silly to pretend that an independent Scotland would somehow be defenceless. The problem with these “process” oriented unionist arguments is that, in the end, they generally rest upon the proposition that Scotland must be an unusually fusionless or otherwise incompetent place. This would be depressing if it were true but, since one suspects it is not true, it is simply vexing.

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Show comments
  • Jambo25

    There is a counter report to the Cornish article published by RUSI (Royal United Services Institutue) last year. That report, in rather more detail, sketched out a possible Scottish Defense Force (SDF). It foresaw an SDF costing about 1.8% of Scottish GDP. It would consist of an Army of 10,000 men. What proportion would be regulars and what reservists wasn’t entirely clear. There would also be an air component of Hawk type aircraft, a few transport aircraft and a helicopter unit. The naval arm would contain up to about 20 ship.

    I think the RUSI report is a wee bit optimistic as I suspect start up costs would be a bit higher than the RUSI report suggests. However, I suspect the RUSI report is a good deal more realistic than Professor Cornish’s article. At the end of the day, what do I trust more? A RUSI report or an article in a right wing propaganda sheet like the Telegraph? Well, let me think.

    • terregles2

      Do the right wing Unionist press never wonder why we can never take them seriously.
      They write constantly that Scotland is a useless loser of a country a drain on the resources of the UK. They then print endless lies trying to ensure we do not vote for independence.
      They must think we are as stupid as they are.

      • Jambo25

        The problem is I’ve come across the RUSI report but a generally anti SNP MSM will never report it to the general population because, quite simply, they are anti-SNP.

  • Charles Patrick O’Brien

    Hammond is talking nonsense or he is just a plain liar.First at present the British Navy,have had ships built in Korea,and yes I know they are for the Royal Fleet Auxiliary,which is that part of the fleet being staffed by Merchant Seamen,and these ships carry supplies for the rest of the fleet including warheads. So the part about not building in Scotland has precedent as the RN have also use Irish Free State yards for building ships.Nothing stops them from ordering ships from Scotland,except petty minded childishness and of course a great scare story for fools.
    The next part about him criticising a Scottish Defence Force,and asking how we will build our Army,Navy and air-force,its none of his business for if we do manage to become independent then we would be telling our strategy to a foreign power and that is really stupid,Oh how the Westminster party has managed to con a lot of people into demanding how we would survive an attack from outside our borders.Who is going to attack us? for the past thousand years its only been England that has attacked us,is he hinting at something?

  • Danceswith Haggis

    UK defence Secretary Philip Hammond has been criticised after claiming that an
    independent Scotland will be too small to attract high quality recruits

    • terregles2

      He does lie… But to be fair he gave a lot of Sots a really good laugh standing in his funny hat warning us against Independence.
      Do these tories not know that they come across as complete idiots? Coming up to Scotland to tell us we need clever people like them to make important decisions for us….. Hello….if we thought you had anything to offer we would have voted for you….What a clown… Can somebody tell him there is only 1 Tory MP in Scotland…
      Cannot believe that the Scottish Labour party are supporting these inadequates.
      Wonder if he visited Scottish Labour HQ for tea and biscuits and to give Johann Lamont her latest instructions.

  • Danceswith Haggis

    Regarding UK Defence Sec Hammond’s comments about no one would want tae join
    a Scots military>> Up to 2,000 Britons a year are applying to join the
    Australian Army rather than the British Armed Forces because they get a more
    attractive lifestyle as well as better pay and conditions

    • Tony Quintus

      Scotland is not Australia

      • terregles2

        Scotland is not Australia indeed it is not. Nor is it a country that votes Tory. Can somebody not tell that clown Hammond that to come to Scotland and suggest to us that we need people like him to govern us is really a massive vote for the YES campaign.
        The audacity of the Tories is truly staggering.

        • Tony Quintus

          “That Clown Hammond” is the defence minister, he was in scotland to watch the fruits of westminster money being assembled (island being put on HMS QE), you know, the money which Gordon Brown decided to divert from H&W in Northern Ireland to Scotland at a cost of
          hundreds of millions of pounds.

          By all means vote “Yes!”, but don’t expect to come crawling back if/when you fall on your faces.

          • terregles2

            When we fall on our faces. What do you mean like Wesrminster has just done by losing the triple A status?
            You seem to like to mention the money that Scotland receives while ignoring the money that Scotlnad contributes. Scotland sends all its revenue to Westminster and receives some of it back. The government GERS figures show that Scotland more than pays its way. That is why Cameron is fighting hard to stop Independence.
            Unlike you I have nothing but goodwill towards England and English people. I hope that if Scotland chooses Independence both our countries go on to prosperity and a better style of government.
            I would hate my family and friends in England to ” fall on their Faces” as you so spitefully put it.

          • terregles2

            Scotland is not subsidised by England. Westminster government figures prove otherwise and Cameron’s wish to prevent

  • Danceswith Haggis

    UK’s Defence Secretary Philip Hammond has been on the BBC lying about Scots
    shipyards saying they will have to close. He has said in the past to Portsmouth
    shipyard workers it is not up to the Govt to decide where BAe build the ships,
    its a commercial decision for BAe. Everyone should read the following article
    including the blue internal links for the arguments that blow Hammond out the
    water..nae apologies for the pun.

    • terregles2

      Hard to believe that England can produce a Defence Secretary like Hammond. These are the people who dare to suggest that we need them to make decisions for us. Unbelievable

  • Daniel Maris

    I am sure the French Navy will be only too happy to arrange some joint missions to Gaudelope and the like, as the old alliance is revived.

  • Doug Daniel

    I see our brief Twitter exchange yesterday proved useful, Alex!

  • CraigStrachan

    ‘Well, of course Scotland is not likely to be “in the market for large warships“. What possible or even semi-plausible need for them is there likely to be?’

    Maybe to defend the North Sea oil reserves?

    • Angus McLellan

      The Royal Navy’s main home defence assets, insofar as it has any, are three River Class patrol ships. In terms of size, these are slightly smaller than Marine Scotland’s pair of Jura Class fisheries patrol ships. Large they are not. The last time that a warship around 80m long might have been called large without provoking disbelief, sails were still used for propulsion and steam was a novelty.

      This isn’t a new state of affairs. The Rivers replaced the Island Class, built after the embarrassment of the 1972-1973 Cod War. These were simply armed copies of an earlier Scottish Fisheries Protection Agency ship, confusingly also called Jura, which the navy had borrowed.

      • CraigStrachan

        Was the cod war really that long ago? i remember it…

        • Angus McLellan

          I remember it too, and the power cuts. Weren’t the seventies just brilliant?

      • Tony Quintus

        The Rivers and most especially HMS Clyde are very capable ships, regardless of size, and as for home defence assets, half the fleet is at home at any one time.

    • Spammo Twatbury

      From whom?

      • CraigStrachan

        Why, those pesky Norwegians.

        Who else?

  • terence patrick hewett

    Another two years of this: Jaysus.

  • FF42

    A country, which is one tenth the size isn’t going to have the same kind of army as a country ten times bigger. It just won’t. If Scotland becomes independent, it’s because we believe there is no threat. A lack of a threat would be a good thing, of course.

    The only conceivable threat to Scotland comes from England. In that scenario – so unlikely that it can be dismissed – the English army will overrun Scotland as it has done on every previous occasion.

    • Wessex Man

      Don’t be silly, Modern England would never attack Scotland, we are not now run by some Warrior King as in the middle ages and there are many happily resident English in Scotland and many more Scots living in England quite happily.

      • Doug Daniel

        I think that’s why he said it was “so unlikely that it can be dismissed”…

      • terregles2

        Scotland and England will always be geographically and historically close. We have a good future as close allies. It will always be in our interests to work together. The only difference will be we have different governments. Why are some people obsessed with threats and war. This is 2013 for goodness sake. So many of us have Enlish friends family etc and as has been said we all live throughout the UK. None of that will change.

        • Lisa Robertson

          I think Independence of Scotland can only repair the relationship rather than damage it more. After all, thanks to Westminster Tory and Labour Governments and their decisions have alienated a lot of people north and south of border with a feeling of unfairness at some issue or other. I think a smaller UK will give England a stronger voice in finally an English parliament with no Scots politicians speaking for them and we Scots will hold our Scottish Government solely to account rather than the bitterness that grew over the years we felt from the English politicians selling us short. My son and friends live in England and I look forward to growth individually of all our countries on the British Isles and we will always stand up for our neighbours first and foremostly before any other countries.

          • terregles2

            I agree with that completely. I think all of the UK countries can benefit from being independent. I have family and many friends in England and indeed many English friends here in Scotland. We all deserve better government than we have at the moment. Think many of us are getting tired listening of all the dreary doom and gloom scare stories.
            Truth is Scotland and England will both do well after independence/

          • Bill Cruickshank

            Well said.

          • Nicholas chuzzlewit

            well said Lisa your argument is presented without rancour and bitterness and thus much appreciated by this Englishman. I share your view that we would all be better off apart and that the only losers would be power hungry politicians. To visit Scotland and be hated, truly hated because my accent betrays me as an Englishman is no way to continue. As smaller nations, it might also force us to adopt a more modest approach to the rest of the world and stop us from involving ourselves in the deadly foreign entanglements which have cost us all so dear. That said, my concern for Scotland is that the SNP presents independence as a complete solution..Nationalism, almost by definition, requires a ‘foreign’ enemy to blame for a country’s woes real and imagined. Once this enemy, my country, has been removed then the SNP will be forced to offer coherent solutions to issues like economic growth, defence,etc etc. At present they can pour North Sea oil over any questions as a panacea but I suspect that this will not be enough. I will not offer any solutions because it will be none of my business. Indeed we will have sufficient problems of our own.

            • terregles2

              I am puzzled Nicholas that you think you are hated in Scotland because of your English accent. I asked some of my English friends and workmates here if they had experienced any hatred for being English and they have not. Some of them are voting for Independence as it has nothing to do with being anti English. I have English cousins and aunts down south and I really love visiting England as they love coming up here. None of that will change if we have separate governments.
              No other country that has chosen independence is accused of hating other nations. People who are voting Yes are voting against English government never against English people.
              Independence is not only about the SNP there are four other Scottish parties campaigning for Independence and as Scotland has PR one of the other parties may well have the majority in an independent Scotland.
              Of course an independent Scotland will face problems and challenges but many people now feel that they would rather have a government in Edinburgh dealing with these problems than a remote London government. Whatever happens I am sure Scottish and English people will continue to be friends and neighbours. No reason why they would not do so.

              • BiennNaFaoghla

                There’s another variety of independence you conveniently disregard – cultural independence. You and your SNP buddies can enjoy your “lovin” but many genuine Scots will be voting for that reason. All that “civic nationalist” drivel doesn’t cut it with most genuine Scots . Like it or not, most Scots think this is what they’re are getting by voting SNP though that is now beginning to change.

                • terregles2

                  Not quite sure what point you are making. One fact remains constant. Scots who will vote YES in 2014 are not in any way anti English people. They only wish to be governed from Edinburgh rather than London. Fact is many English people who live in Scotland are united in that wish. Along with the English and many other nationalities who live in Scotland a YES vote is an attractive prospect for many of us and it promises a better future. Westminster government has failed.

                  Another fact that you choose to ignore is that another four Scottish political parties are campaigning for a Yes vote. Many who would never vote SNP will still vote YES in 2014.

                  My SNP buddies? I have never voted fot them but I will be voting YES in 2014.

                  You say that things are beginning to change. Are you suggesting that Lamont. Darling. Miliband Davidson Cameron or Farage has brought about the change? Oh please…!!!!!

    • Angus McLellan

      Actually it could have the same sort of army. Denmark’s army, which the SNP may have in mind as a model, is obviously smaller than the British army. Ten times smaller in round numbers. It doesn’t have all the capabilities that the British army does.

      But if you stick with the big picture and don’t get bogged down in arguments over detail, Denmark’s army is the same sort of intervention-oriented force that Britain has. Of course, where Britain might expect to send off a brigade or two, Denmark can only send a battalion or maybe two at a stretch. Where Britain could land a brigade of marines from the Royal Navy’s specialist amphibious warfare ships, Denmark might be able to land a company instead from its multi-purpose frigates. Denmark’s airforce has only four Hercules transports, whereas the RAF has more and bigger and longer-ranged aircraft available. And so on.

      So there are huge differences in the “effects” which can be delivered, as you’d expect with a ten to one difference in strength, but they can be delivered. And that makes Denmark’s military quite unlike those of Poland or Finland or Belgium, and more like British forces.

      None of this says that an independent Scotland would have the same sort of armed forces, nor whether it should have. But if the political will existed then it could do. And never underestimate the power of contingent events to change things. If I were writing a newspaper piece trying to explain why Denmark today has a defence policy so far removed from the apathy which prevailed for more than a century after defeat in the Second Schleswig War, I’d be bound to pick 29 April 1994 as the day when everything change.

    • Bill Cruickshank


      • Eddie

        I’m sorry to hear that.
        Get some ointment for it, son.

  • Leithalyak

    My take on it ( a Cartoon )

  • William Haworth

    Scotland would be safe so long as any enemy had to fight through England to get to it. That’s the condition that’s kept Irish defence spending so low over the past 90 years.

    And there would be no ‘rump UK’. Once the Scots leave the Union, the English would too.