12 October 2021

The SNP has no idea how to defend Scotland

By Sir Michael Fallon

In my home city of Perth stands the Black Watch Museum. It proudly commemorates the history of that great regiment: ‘from Fontenoy to Fallujah with Ticonderoga, Waterloo, Alamein and two World Wars in between, the Black Watch has been there when the world’s history has been shaped’.

It’s a reminder that for over 300 years Scotland and England have defended freedom side by side: together, we’ve fought fascism and aggression in Europe and terrorism across the globe. Scottish soldiers, Scottish airmen and women and Scottish sailors have helped keep these islands safe. But they have done so much more: together they’ve helped to advance our values – of freedom under the law and respect for international order – across the world.

Today our aircraft carriers, launched from Rosyth, are sailing the globe to help keep the peace alongside our allies. Scottish pilots are flying RAF Typhoons to police Baltic airspace against Russian incursion. Scottish troops serve in Africa, Asia and the Middle East to help underpin fragile democracies and protect our European security. These operations, always in support of international law and multilateral treaties, put the liberal values of the Scottish Enlightenment into practical and humanitarian effect.

Britain has the strongest defence forces in Europe and is the fifth biggest defence power in the world. That strength and power, second only to the United States among the democracies, is for the common good. And it’s only possible because Scotland and England together, with Wales and Northern Ireland, are so much more than the sum of their parts.

Scotland plays a central part in the defence of the British Isles. The Royal Navy’s base on the Clyde hosts all its submarines – not just the Trident boats – and employs 8,500 people. Orders for nine new frigates are being placed with shipyards on the Clyde and the Forth, employing thousands more. RAF Lossiemouth, employing another 2,200, hosts half the RAF’s Typhoon squadrons and will house the UK’s nine P-8 maritime patrol aircraft. Thousands of troops, including the 51st Infantry Brigade and five battalions of the Royal Regiment of Scotland, are stationed across Scotland, always ready to help out, whether it’s to battle flooding or assist with the Covid-19 vaccination programme.

British defence combines the best of each nation. Those aircraft carriers were built block by block in both Scottish and English shipyards. Our RAF Typhoons are assembled in Lancashire, with sophisticated avionics from Edinburgh. Every regiment in the British Army would be poorer without its Scottish men and women. Scots have always served at the very highest ranks in the British military. Most of Wellington’s generals were Scots. Admiral Duncan from Dundee saved us from the Dutch at Camperdown. Admiral Cochrane from Hamilton helped lead Brazil, Chile and Peru to independence, and Admiral John Paul from Kirkcudbright is recognised as ‘the Father of the American Navy’.

Our defence of these islands is successful because it is interwoven. The RAF holds fighter jets at instant readiness at both Lossiemouth in Moray and Coningsby in Lincolnshire to intercept Russian aircraft entering our air defence zone and to prevent a 9/11-style attack on any of our cities, in Scotland or England. Those jets, with tanker support, must cover the whole of our flight information region in minutes. Terrorist hijackers won’t ask permission to overfly any Scottish border.

The Royal Navy protects fisheries around Scottish coasts but also the key transatlantic cables, so vital for the commercial centres of Edinburgh and Glasgow. Our Vanguard submarines are on constant patrol from Faslane to deter any potential nuclear attacker from targeting Scottish as well as English cities. The P-8 maritime patrol aircraft at Lossiemouth and the new anti-submarine frigates being built on the Clyde in turn protect the deterrent.

A separate Scotland would undermine all this. Small-scale Scottish-only forces would have to be constructed from among those who were willing to transfer from each of the Royal Navy, Royal Air Force, Army and UK Strategic Command. The nationalists propose a Scottish military comprising just four warships, a couple of RAF squadrons and an army brigade. To keep Scotland safe such a small force would necessarily have to contract out key defence functions such as air policing, cyber-security, and the use of enablers such as helicopters, just as the Irish Republic relies on the RAF to police its own airspace.

But size isn’t the only issue. An independent Scotland would have to develop a separate defence policy. And here the difficulties begin: the separatists haven’t yet started to think this through. The SNP submission to the UK Government’s Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy contained just seven pages on defence there was not a single costing for the hundreds of millions of pounds involved in the dismembering of our Armed Forces and the loss of so many defence jobs across Scotland.

The only defence policy they do put forward shows the poverty and insularity of separatist thinking. The SNP wants us to forget about ‘out of area operations of dubious benefit’ and focus instead just on the Arctic Circle and the ‘High North’. This ignores the real-world threats from international terrorism, from a nuclear-armed Iran, from Russian and Chinese aggression and from growing instability in Africa. To counter the increasing danger of cyber attacks – of the kind we’ve already seen on Scottish companies, on our NHS, on Parliament – the nationalists’ only answer is to propose an ‘ambassador for hybrid affairs’. To stop President Putin interfering in our country – remember the Salisbury poisonings – they suggest that we only need to reform the funding of political parties to curb foreign donations (which are already illegal).

These aren’t real world answers. In fact, they would weaken our security and leave us less safe. An independent Scotland would mean a weaker Nato; a fractured Britain would be more vulnerable to Russian aggression, more exposed to Islamist terrorism and less able to counter Chinese interference. In the real world, our adversaries would welcome a weaker Britain. Look how Russia has preyed on the instability of the Balkans and how China takes full advantage of over-indebted countries; cyber-warriors won’t be deterred by an ‘ambassador for hybrid affairs’.

Let’s look at the rest of that defence policy in detail. First, the nationalists propose that Scotland joins Nato in its own right: Scotland would take its place around the Nato table next to Slovakia and Slovenia. But Nato is a nuclear alliance: its members accept that they come under the nuclear umbrella, the protection provided by the US and UK nuclear deterrents. To quote Nato: ‘The supreme guarantee of the security of the Alliance is provided by the strategic nuclear forces of the Alliance.’ Each new member of Nato (and an independent Scotland would be a new member) has to accept this on joining.

Even when they don’t have nuclear weapons of their own, Nato members support Nato’s nuclear-sharing arrangement, under which many members provide dualcapability aircraft and the bases from which they can fly. All Nato members (except France, which has its own nuclear forces) take part in Nato nuclear planning, including Canada and Norway. Even if a separate Scottish Government rejected our Vanguard submarines and closed their base at Faslane, Scotland in Nato would still be unable to opt out of nuclear protection.

Second, the SNP proposes that Scotland (and indeed the UK) should no longer commit to ‘out of area operations’. Instead, a separate Scotland would restrict its Nato contribution to its north-western boundary: the Arctic Circle and the High North. There are indeed growing tensions in Nato’s north, as the climate warms and the northern trade passage opens up. But those countries most concerned – Norway, Sweden, Finland and the Baltic states – are looking to strengthen, not break up, their partnerships with larger neighbours. Norway is working with the US and the UK on Atlantic patrolling, and the Nordic and Baltic states have joined the British-led Joint Expeditionary Force.

But the threats to the security of our islands are not just European. Since the beginning of this century they have been increasingly international. Adversaries such as Russia, China, Iran and North Korea breach international treaties and directly threaten our way of life. The Skripal poisoning could have occurred in Stirling as easily as in Salisbury. Sputnik broadcasts Russian propaganda from an office in Edinburgh. Chinese hackers steal intellectual property from companies north and south of Hadrian’s Wall.

And then there is terrorism, the biggest international threat of all. Daesh, Al Qaeda and their offshoots remain very dangerous to any of us in the West. The Nato mission in Afghanistan and our coalition protecting Iraq weren’t just about defending their democracies: we were there to defend ours. Scotland, like England, like France, like Spain, is in the firing line. Islamist extremists attacked Glasgow Airport the day after they planted car bombs in London in 2007. Four of the Britons slaughtered by Islamist terrorists on the beach in Tunisia in 2015 were Scots.

Dealing effectively with terrorism means dealing with it at source, and certainly ‘out of area’. British troops, Scots battalions among them, served tour after tour in Afghanistan to restrict safe havens from which attacks in British and European cities could be directed or inspired. Scottish RAF pilots and army trainers, including 3 Rifles from Edinburgh, are part of the 75-nation-strong coalition driving Daesh out of Iraq. Those airstrikes and that training have helped to reduce attacks on British and European cities. To their shame, the Scottish nationalists in Parliament voted each time against joining our allies in those UN-backed operations.

Protecting us from terrorist attacks and ‘grey zone’ interference also depends upon intense intelligence and co-operation with our closest allies. Britain in particular relies on its membership of the ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence-sharing partnership between the UK, the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. If it were outside the protection of GCHQ (including our world-leading National Cyber Security Centre) and no longer part of the new UK National Cyber Force, Scotland would be less able to forestall cyber-attacks on its citizens and its companies.

A separate Scotland would also be retreating from the world. Through the UK, Scotland shares one of the five permanent seats on the UN Security Council and one of the seven seats at the annual G7 economic summit. These leadership positions matter when it comes to upholding the rules-based international order on which Scotland’s security and prosperity ultimately depend. If you believe that international borders should not be changed by force, then you must respond to Ukraine’s call for equipment and training to resist Russian aggression. If you believe in upholding the treaty safeguarding Hong Kong (much of whose success is owed to Scottish finance and expertise), then you have to stand up to Chinese bullying. Effective deterrence and defence involve deploying our military power – ships, troops and aircraft – across the globe alongside our allies.

In fact, Scotland has always looked outwards. The prosperity of our islands was largely built on Scottish merchants and entrepreneurs, trading across the globe. Inside or outside the UK, the Scottish economy depends on trade with the rest of the world: it’s always been in Scotland’s interest to keep those trade routes open, whether it’s the Strait of Hormuz in the Gulf, the Bab-el-Mandeb in the Red Sea or the Strait of Malacca in the Pacific. Leaving the UK would not enable Scotland to opt out of the global economy; nor could Scotland morally leave international policing of its trade routes to everybody else. That’s why there’s an Australian frigate operating in the Gulf, far from home.

Finally, those armed forces that a separate Scotland would try to retain would be further weakened by two extraordinary reforms that the SNP proposes. First, that servicemen and women should be allowed a trade union, described as a ‘representative body’. That trade union would have pay-bargaining rights and the ability to take up disciplinary concerns; this would completely undermine the chain of command. Second, 17-year-olds, though adult enough to be given the vote in a Scottish referendum, would be barred from joining up until they were 18, thus making recruitment more difficult.

Reducing Scotland’s role in the world and dismembering our Royal Navy, Army and Royal Air Force would leave us all less safe. It would weaken Nato and would play into the hands of our adversaries, especially those in Moscow, Beijing, Pyongyang and Tehran who wish us harm. But it would also come at a huge economic cost. There’s no pricing in the SNP’s policy for the millions to be spent on re-organising and re-basing each of our Armed Forces.

Nor have they considered the impact on employment and Scottish industry. It isn’t just the jobs at military bases in Edinburgh, Leuchars, Arbroath, Lossiemouth and Faslane that would be under threat. Defence is a major industry with over 10,000 high-value jobs across Scotland, depending on £1.75 billion of UK defence spending annually. And it’s a significant exporter: over 20 major defence companies have manufacturing, research and other facilities in Scotland.

There would be immediate employment consequences from partition: Royal Navy warships are only built in UK yards, so could no longer be ordered from the Clyde. Babcock’s construction of the common missile compartment for the UK Dreadnought and US Columbia submarine programmes would have to be moved from Rosyth. RAF Typhoons and maritime patrol aircraft would leave Lossiemouth.

But there would be longer-term consequences too. Major contractors such as Thales in Glasgow, Leonardo in Edinburgh and Raytheon in Fife would have to reassess their locations. These are high-value white-collar jobs closely linked to Scottish universities. Scotland would also lose its share of the UK’s £2.5bn space programme, including the spaceport planned for Sutherland.

We need to consider all this with our eyes wide open. Scotland could pull out of the UK’s defence and minimise its role and influence in the world. Scotland could reduce itself to the likes of Slovakia and Slovenia: small countries can join Nato. Dismembering our long-standing Royal Navy, Army and Royal Air Force would be complicated, painful and extremely costly. That is the question that the separatists must answer: would all this be really worth it if the result is a much less safe Scotland than today?

And morally this is very different from any economic argument. Some Scottish voters could indeed choose to risk becoming poorer, at least in the short term, in return for the perceived gains of independence. But to decide wilfully to make Scotland less safe – at a time when the threats to our security are agreed to have significantly increased – would be perverse.

And there’s something else. Scots have never opted out of their own defence. Nemo me impune lacessit – nobody attacks me with impunity – is the Black Watch regimental motto. Scotland has never left its defence to others. It shouldn’t do so now.

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The Rt Hon Sir Michael Fallon is a former Secretary of State for Defence.

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