3 December 2020

The MoD should spell out the stark consequences of Scottish independence


Throughout the EU referendum campaign, David Cameron ordered that the civil service conduct no contingency planning for the scenario in which Britain voted to leave the EU. He did so for narrowly political reasons, fearing leaks and the legitimisation of the Leave campaign. No doubt this in part contributed to the years of chaos following the referendum.

Now history seems to be repeating itself. The Ministry of Defence has secured a major cash uplift for the next four years with promises of a renaissance in British military capability. But should another referendum on Scottish independence take place, and a Yes vote occur, all the MoD’s best laid plans for the next decade may be left in tatters.

A disproportionate share of the UK’s most valuable military assets are based in Scotland, in part due to Scotland’s natural geographic advantages and in part due to a long-term policy of using defence money to dampen independence sentiment. From the nuclear submarine base at Faslane to shipyards at Govan, Rosyth, and on the Clyde, the Royal Navy is disproportionately exposed to the loss of Scotland. The RAF also has valuable assets north of the border, most notably RAF Lossiemouth, a base for fast jets to see off intruding Russian aircraft. The Army’s Scottish regiments, by contrast, are undermanned and suffer from dreadful recruiting, so their loss would be far from crippling – itself an indicator of how pervasive nationalist sentiment is among Scotland’s youth.

Nevertheless, the costs of independence could still blow an enormous hole in the MoD’s budget, depending on the degree of relocation required and the extent to which the MoD would have to find the money from its own budget, or whether the Treasury would directly foot the bill. Current government policy is for all warships to be built in the UK, so the manufacturing capacity for frigates and destroyers would eventually have to move south, at enormous cost and great difficulty. Rebuilding warship manufacture expertise at English yards that have not done this kind of work for decades would be no trivial endeavour. The policy could, of course, be changed to allow warship construction at foreign yards, but then it may as well change now to allow purchases from South Korea or Spain, which would offer a substantial cost saving.

The SNP have indicated their openness to renting Lossiemouth to the RAF, but are implacably opposed to nuclear submarines operating from Faslane. Brexit has cost the UK its best opportunity to keep Faslane as a Sovereign Base Area. The threat of blocking Scottish EU membership could have been very valuable, but is now no longer an option: while the UK could still threaten to block Scottish membership of Nato, it is not obvious that the SNP would particularly care, especially if Nicola Sturgeon loses control of the party and Alex Salmond’s faction regains power.

It is possible, of course, that the SNP could be persuaded to loan the use of Faslane in exchange for a very large economic inducement, but it would be politically very difficult for them to accept such a compromise, having spent years campaigning on the issue of denuclearising Scotland. The MoD could offer some amount of fast jets, maritime patrol aircraft, even warships to sweeten the deal, but such a stark reduction in Britain’s conventional military power would be very difficult to accept.

The Faslane headache showcases the severe costs of the UK’s determination to remain a nuclear power, come what may, as the SNP threaten to add costly and painful negotiations to the already sky-high financial liabilities incurred in the maintenance of the existing Vanguard-class submarines, the construction of the new Dreadnought-class submarines, and the replacement of existing warheads. Already reliant on American expertise for the provision of new warheads, as well as the testing, supply, and maintenance of missiles, Westminster now faces the prospect of being doubly reliant on dubious reserves of Scottish goodwill. In many ways, the nuclear deterrent is already the least sovereign of the UK’s major military capabilities, and Scottish independence would make this reality even starker and more painfully obvious.

At the very least, should another referendum take place, the MoD should undertake and make public its contingency planning, so that voters of all nations can understand the stakes. Scottish voters may well gain a better understanding of the costs of independence, which would leave Scotland for decades with a vanishingly thin cupboard, its forces reduced to the level of minor powers like Ireland.

Voters in England and Wales, when confronted with the substantial costs of relocation, may likewise come to question the MoD’s reliance on the kindness of strangers, and the utility of such inflexible assets as Trident. Senior military figures routinely lament the public’s ignorance of the great issues in defence, yet one can hardly blame the public when so much is hidden behind the veil of “national security”. A more informed debate requires the kind of sunlight that the 2016 referendum never saw. The Integrated Review should promise that Britain will do better.

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Jonathon Kitson is an independent researcher and forecaster.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.