The politics of national security: how safe would an independent Scotland be?

What are the security considerations to keep in mind when debating for or against Scottish independence? Although independence is unlikely to pose an existential threat to Scotland, there are still important issues to consider – despite being given little attention in public debates. Andrew Neal draws on the book ‘Security in a Small Nation’ (free to download) to outline some of those issues.

When we brought our ESRC seminar series ‘Security in Scotland, with or without constitutional change’ to a close in 2015 – a year after the ‘No’ vote in the independence referendum – we had little idea our work would be topical again so soon. In the year leading up to the 2014 referendum, and in reflection on the post-referendum settlement afterwards, we brought together a wide range of academics, professionals, and practitioners to consider the security implications of Scottish independence. We looked less at traditional defence issues such as Trident, and more at the existing and potential relationship between the Scotland and the security services, the challenges in intelligence oversight that Holyrood would face, the effect of any geopolitical or foreign policy differences between Scotland and the rest of the UK, and at international comparisons.

We concluded that an independent Scotland could provide for its own security, but not in the short 18 months from referendum to the proposed independence day of 24 March 2016, and it could not replace all of the capabilities currently provided by the extensive UK security apparatus. An independent Scotland would lose a dedicated foreign intelligence service, which no small country can afford to run; it would lose the advanced cyber security capabilities provided by GCHQ and the Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure; and it would lose international intelligence sharing with the ‘five eyes’ network of the UK, US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

The loss of such capabilities would more likely be felt commercially than violently or existentially, since an independent Scotland would lose high-level technical protections against intellectual property theft; it would lose any economic advantage the UK gains from its foreign intelligence capabilities (note the Treasury is a consumer of secret intelligence and it is in the statutory remit of the UK agencies to work ‘in the interests of economic wellbeing’); and the remaining UK would become a commercial competitor, particularly for the kind of high-tech business that benefits from these capabilities.

Whether an independent Scotland would become the ‘sixth eye’ is a difficult practical and political question: it would not be in the gift of the UK to share third party intelligence with Scotland, and any future cooperation from the other ‘eyes’ would depend on Scotland proving its security capabilities and reliability. Moreover, it would above all depend on political goodwill from the UK and in turn the others, which Scottish nationalists maintained would be forthcoming, but which no unionist was willing to concede during the referendum campaign.

The chapters presented in our book represent what we think are the key lessons and outstanding issues for security in an independent Scotland. We would have needed another volume to include full country-by-country comparisons, so instead we incorporated some of these within chapters, and focused mainly on questions that had not been fully addressed or satisfactorily answered in the independence debate. None of our authors concluded that independence would put Scotland in a position of existential threat, but all concluded that many issues had been little considered in public debate, in the Scottish Government’s 2013 independence white paper, or even behind closed political doors.

For example, how would Scotland’s new status as a ‘small state’ constrain its foreign policy independence and its position in alliances? What concept of ‘security’ would an independent Scotland pursue in the wake of the Snowden revelations, particularly in relation to civil liberties and privacy? How would an independent Scotland negotiate international intelligence-sharing and democratic intelligence oversight? What would be the legal and political implications of a continuing security dependence on the UK? And how would Scotland’s parliamentarians, media, and public rise to the challenge of addressing and overseeing the security responsibilities that were previously ‘reserved’ to Westminster?

While we provide answers to some of these questions through empirical observations and comparisons, many are ultimately political questions for policymakers and the public to answer. For example, Baldur Thorhallsson and Alyson Bailes point out that comparisons with the Nordic states suggest an independent Scotland would want and need to remain in a position of ‘alliance shelter’ with NATO, the EU, the US, and the UK, and that this would not necessarily afford much more ‘independence’ than it has at present. Similarly, Juliet Kaarbo and Daniel Kenealy conclude that while it is possible for small states to advance their ideals and interests internationally, this is neither easy nor cheap, and depends on deft diplomacy and political skill.

The chapters by Charles Raab; Hugh Bochel and Andrew Defty; and Colin Atkinson, Nick Brooke and Brian Harris all draw on lessons from recent controversies – particularly the Snowden revelations and their aftermath – to consider the relationship between security and democracy in an independent Scotland. Again, while a newly independent state would have the opportunity to do things differently, perhaps with alternative models of intelligence oversight or a new settlement between individual security and national security, a small state would find its independence curtailed in a number of practical and political ways.

Scottish parliamentarians have little expertise in security matters and may lack the ability to ask the right questions or stay abreast of technological developments (and this has been a historical hindrance at Westminster). The committees of the Scottish parliament are already overwhelmed with scrutiny and oversight work and no plan has been offered for creating extra capacity to deal with the new policy areas independence would bring.

Similarly in their chapters, Sandy Hardie, Eamonn O’Neill, and Andrew Neal argue in different ways that Scottish political leaders, the Scottish press, and members of the Scottish Parliament on all sides have yet to demonstrate a level of interest and critical acumen on security matters that would befit an independent and aspiring liberal democracy.

If and when Scotland holds a second independence referendum, we hope that politicians, commentators, and the public will consider these questions more fully, and that our book provides an insightful starting point for that debate.

[Re-blogged from]

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s