Alex Massie

Cause for Unionists to applaud

Cause for Unionists to applaud
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Brian Monteith has revived his Think Scotland website and as part of all this I'm scribbling there on Tuesdays. This week I'm busy cheering the SNP's march to sanity on defence policy. Angus Robertson, the obvious candidate to combine the jobs of Foreign and Defence Secretary should Scotland become an independent state and remain governed by the SNP, has been busy leading the party back from the brink of student union yahooism and towards some kind of sweet sanity. Hence his proposal to abandon the SNP's longstanding anti-NATO stance. Scotia free and braw will join the alliance provided some deal is done to remove the nukes from Faslane. At some point. Anyway, all this is worth a cheer or two...

Unionists have a stake in SNP policy too. It may be that the Scottish people reject the SNP's proposals for independence but it remains the case that, just in case they do not, Unionists should welcome anything that suggests life in an independent Scotland might be arranged in ways that might better please and satisfy Unionists. If this increases the risk of independence then so be it but SNP "growth" on matters as diverse as the head of state, NATO membership and a currency union should be considered hedges against the unavoidable uncertainty that comes with independence.

[...] Be all this as it may be, the fact remains that the SNP's defence policy was shambolic before Robertson took control of it. A reappraisal of policy was due to be debated at the party's conference in 2001 but this was postponed for fear the party membership might embarrass the leadership by indulging in a festival of anti-Americanism while the World Trade Center still smouldered.

It is also the case that the present UK government's stewardship of defence issues has assisted the SNP. When London cuts the army by 20% it can't be said that defence is necessarily safe in Tory hands. How much worse could the SNP do?

Robertson proposes an annual Scottish defence budget of £2.5bn, or approximately 1.7% of GDP. This would fund a defence force of 15,000 full-time servicemen with another 5,000 in reserve. As the SNP will tell you this is a larger number of people than are presently recruited from, based in or otherwise employed for the defence of the realm in Scotland. Those troops would, one presumes, play a role comparable to that served by the Republic of Ireland's defence forces. This is not a trivial or mockable role: the Irish have been stalwarts of UN peace-keeping operations from the Congo to the Lebanon.

There is, to be sure, some wishful thinking here. For instance: "Regular ground forces will include current Scottish raised and restored UK regiments". Perhaps so but it also seems possible that a good proportion of those Scots currently serving in Her Majesty's Armed Forces might choose to serve in the military of the Rump UK rather than in the service of a freshly-minted Scottish Army.

According to the resolution to be put to conference "The Scottish defence and peacekeeping forces will initially be equipped with Scotland’s share of current assets including ocean going vessels, fast jets for domestic air patrol duties, transport aircraft and helicopters as well as army vehicles, artillery and air defence systems." On the face of it this seems equitable though I'm not sure Whitehall will necessarily be so sanguine about transferring 8% of the UK's tanks, fast jets and frigates to an independent Scotland.

The tiger in the corner, of course, is the future of Trident. The SNP insists no nuclear weapons will have a home in an independent Scotland. This is not, however, incompatible with NATO membership. Canada and Norway and Greece all refuse to allow nukes on their soil. Nevertheless, it seems plain to see that any withdrawal of Trident from Scotland will take some time and be a chip to be played in the negotiations between Edinburgh and London should Scots vote for independence. These transitional arrangements will take some time to be resolved. No matter how Scotland votes Scotland will not be nuclear-free in 2015.

[...]This has been a long process of development but, even if not all questions have been answered, there is much to admire in the evolution of the SNP's defence policy. Here, as elsewhere, student union politics have been, or are in the process of being, ditched.

Will this determine the result of the referendum? Of course not but in this, as in other matters, the SNP's evolution is best understood as the construction of a series of reassuring fortifications to persuade Scots that they're up to the job of defending the country's interest. This is not a small thing and should be given a cheer or two even by those who have no inclination to support the nationalists.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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