This week began with another dust-up between the two camps of the Scottish independence debate that is threatening to realign UK politics along the nationalist/unionist faultlines of the early twentieth century. A group of experts composed of bureaucrats, academics, and military types published a paper on the military exigencies of Scottish independence under the auspices of The Scotland Institute, a think tank. You can read the whole report, which was coordinated by Maj. Gen. Andrew Mackay, former commander of British forces in Afghanistan, here.
The report’s assessment of an independent Scotland’s military situation is, in a word, dire. It suggests that the spending estimates quoted by the ruling Scottish Nationalist Party wildly undershoot the realities of defense spending, that Scotland would face serious shortfalls in its defense from terrorism and cyber-attacks among others, and that the country would be forced to choose between its anti-nuclear convictions and its membership of international defense networks like NATO, to name a few.
The SNP has already hit back, through its Defence Spokesman Angus Robertson, who reiterated his party’s argument that the UK government chronically misallocates defense resources. He insisted that an independent Scotland would invest about £500 million more in Scottish defense annually than the UK does, and that this money could go to “better defence decisions” in Scotland rather than being “wasted” on programs like the Trident nuclear weapons system based in Scottish waters.
The basic dilemma here is very old, classic even. It involves two thorny issues for federalized democracies: first, how does a group of interconnected polities pool resources to create collective goods (like defense) and then justify the transfers to its respective electorates? Second, how does a geographically and politically dispersed state defend itself effectively? This same debate raged in the late nineteenth century, as the British Empire’s growing and aspiring democracies debated over how best to fund and direct the defense of their gigantic realm.
The Duke of Devonshire, who was serving as Colonial Secretary in 1861, remarked, “I have frequently had to state to the Colonists that in truth our [English] Channel fleet constitutes a defence to Australia.” The Scottish Institute is echoing Devonshire when it labels the SNP’s assumption that only troops based in Scotland contribute to Scottish defense “fundamentally flawed.” But while last century’s colonials could argue that shipbuilding programs really only stimulated the British economy, or that Australia’s defense needs sometimes clashed with Britain’s, the contemporary relationship between members of the United Kingdom is much cozier. British nuclear weapons are, in fact, Scotland’s largest single employer. Still, if pro-Union forces are going to win the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence, they’ll have to do what the Unionists of the last century failed to do: convince their fellow citizens that their Sterling is well spent. Worryingly, as the SNP rejects the deterrent value of nuclear weapons outright, the only way to do this may be to launch a nuclear strike on some unfortunate target and thus get some “use” out of them. And before you ask, Dantooine is too remote for an effective demonstration.