UK Defence Secretary Philip Hammond has gone on the offensive today about armed forces capabilities in an independent Scotland.
Expressing, as many others have done, a variety of concerns about how defence would work under independence, he is quoted as asking a number of questions:
“It is not whether an independent Scotland could go it alone and develop its own defence forces – of course it could – but what sort of forces would they be? What would they look like? What level of security would they deliver? Who would join them? And would they in any way even begin to match the level of security from which Scotland benefits as part of the United Kingdom today?”
It’s rather an astonishing tirade. Not because these are not valid questions to ask – on the contrary, they are very good ones. But they are strange questions to ask specifically of an independent Scotland because they’re the sorts of questions any government and people of any independent country anywhere in the world should be asking themselves.
Indeed, such questions are being asked of the United Kingdom itself at the moment, given the issues facing the Ministry of Defence at present on everything from what planes to have, where bases will be located, and whether and how to replace the nuclear deterrent. These debates and questions do not undermine the case for a United Kingdom nor its ability to defend itself. Instead, such military and political choices are quite simply par for the course, business as usual: precisely what governments are elected to actually deal with.
And we can guess a lot of the likely answers to Philip Hammond’s questions: Scotland’s defences forces would be based in various places throughout Scotland, they would be non-nuclear and peace-orientated, they would consist (like armed forces all over the world) of citizens who have volunteered to join, and they would provide security to Scotland’s domestic territorial integrity, its economic infrastructure, its overseas interests, its allies, and above all its people.
As for the details? Well, just like in the UK, that depends on the governments we elect and the choices they make. But it’s safe to assume that a Scottish armed forces, like that of most European countries, would be one that is professional, attractive to the right kind of person, and would offer a range of domestic and overseas opportunities. Just like now. After all, if Denmark can commit troops to overseas action, so can Scotland.
Of course, some would argue that an independent Scotland would not be able to sustain levels of expenditure on defence: a standpoint people are perfectly entitled to adopt.
However, there have already been many years of cuts to the UK’s defence capability, with reductions in expenditure and troop numbers leading to concerning damage to resources, a threat to the so-called “special relationship” with the USA, and accusations of “serious holes” in the UK’s future defence capabilities.
So an independent Scotland is hardly unique in being accused of unsustainable defence cost reductions – nor, as an aside, unique in saving millions on defence expenditure by not having nuclear weapons.
And this idea of criticising independence for potential risks that are already being realised in the Union is a recurring theme of the referendum debate across a range of issues. Unionists have made a number of warnings about spending in an independent Scotland, when exactly the same problems are already happening in the UK.
For instance, on pensions, people have asked how on earth we would be able to manage a pensions system in an independent Scotland – when others have warned that the UK itself is in danger of not managing.
On the management of the economy, some have argued that an independent Scotland would not be able to maintain a AAA credit rating… when the UK itself is not capable of holding on to it.
There’s also welfare. An independent Scotland would not be able to pay for its welfare bill, argues the UK Work and Pensions Secretary. Meanwhile, the UK’s welfare system, currently being overhauled by the UK Government, is not working and is “promoting destructive behaviour”, argues… er… the UK Work and Pensions Secretary.
The national debt is an example, too. Scotland’s share of the UK’s national debt is described as “terrifying”. Meanwhile, the UK’s national debt last year was just over a trillion pounds and described by the UK Government as “unsustainable”.
And we hear that Scotland might not be a member of various international organisations. Yet we also hear that the political choices of the current UK Government could see the UK’s membership of both the UN and EU cast into doubt.
How about embassies? Well, an independent Scotland would face “enormous” costs paying for its embassy network. Mind you, so does the UK, which has had to cut costs by £100 million to make its own network sustainable (and let’s not forget the UK’s embassy sharing deal with Canada that I blogged about a while back).
I could go on. But you get the point – it’s a poor show to be criticising the idea of an independent Scotland as an economically unviable prospect that cannot meet its public spending obligations, when the UK itself is currently demonstrating precisely those failures.
For every story of doom and gloom about how something wouldn’t be manageable in an independent Scotland, you can find a corresponding argument about how that same thing is not manageable right now in the United Kingdom. And indeed, there will also be evidence to show that countries around the world, often smaller and poorer than Scotland, somehow manage quite fine with facing up to these challenges.
Therefore, these questions about how Scotland would cope as an independent country are not concerns that are unique to Scotland: they are shared by all governments around the world. Every government has difficult questions to face about how to deal with the problems of the day – be that an ageing population, public sector cuts, or poor infrastructure.
Such challenges don’t make those countries unsustainable in themselves – they are nothing more and nothing less than the bread and butter, everyday political issues that governments wrestle with.
So let’s accept that an independent Scotland would face precisely the same range of problems the UK faces at the moment.
It would be nice (though probably, sadly, unrealistic) to imagine that the “No” camp in the independence referendum could ask itself the following question before raising concerns about costs in an independent Scotland: “do those same equivalent concerns also exist right now in the UK?”
To put it another way, rather than inviting us to fear a possible future, why not dwell for a moment on the same fears being realised right now, in the present?
The real question is whether we want Scotland’s problems tackled by a UK Government that we might not have voted for, or by the fully accountable government of an independent Scotland that would be £824 a head richer than now?