The SNP’s defence strategy is neither strategic nor about defence

Louis Reynolds

The recent publication of the Henry Jackson Society’s assessment of SNP Defence Strategy, ‘In Scotland’s Defence, has brought fresh attention to the nationalist proposals for the defence of an independent Scotland.

Despite assurances to the contrary from the report’s author George Grant in a recent Scottish Affairs Committee meeting, the report does occasionally dip into simple pessimism. The idea that any future Scottish Defence Force would have to acquire brand new fighter-jets because the Eurofighter would likely be too expensive and complex is quite a causal leap; the inadequacy of Britain’s aeronautic hand-me-downs would probably not be so great that Scotland would need to immediately buy a brand new air force. Furthermore, though in the report’s foreword Colonel Stuart Crawford sagely argues against predicating defence policy on civilian employment in related industries, the report goes on to argue against the removal of Trident from Her Majesty’s Naval Base Clyde partially on this basis. Despite its simplicity and occasional (and not unexpected) flashes of partisan rhetoric, the report usefully adds inches to the mountainous pile of evidentiary documents that show, quite simply, that the SNP’s vision for an independent Scottish Defence Force is wholly inadequate.

The argument against the SNPs vision with regards to defence – insofar as such a vision is existent – is not difficult to make. The SNP’s argument that it could retain a foreign intelligence service in addition to a domestic security service is hard to substantiate when one considers the intelligence capabilities of other similarly-sized nations. While an independent Scotland might not share the inevitable blowback from future British foreign policy decisions, its intelligence and security apparatus, robbed of institutional experience, resources and credibility, would be notably less able to defend the interests of the Scottish people. The initial start up costs would be vastly more than the SNP is (publically) prepared to accept, even if one ignores the fact that the proposed annual costs have very little relation to the capabilities that the SNP has considered.

Even assuming that the budgetary magic the SNP promises to work was rather astoundingly carried out, there is doubt as to whether or not the nascent Scottish nation could find enough British soldiers willing to accept the significant drop in career prospects, overseas deployment opportunities and resources that joining a brand new military would entail. Indeed, experienced Scotsmen formally employed by the British Army would be the indispensible midwives of an independent Scottish force if it were to maintain even basic functionality, given the highly sophisticated nature of twenty-first century armed forces.

And yet even the end product of this fanciful process, the new force that the SNP confidently asserts it can create, is nothing short of fatally flawed. The incongruous nature of the relationship between what on the one hand an independent Scotland would need, and what on the other it would inherit and indeed purports to want is clear. For example, the SNP has expressed a desire for new frigates and submarines as part of its naval flotilla, when it would not have the sophisticated support mechanisms required to sustain the minute high-tech force it would be likely to inherit. It would also lack the strategic need for such a force, given its priorities would shift from conventional warfighting and international operations to fisheries protection and border control, limited objectives that would require an increased number of small ships. Even the rather unambitious humanitarian goals that the SNP has decided upon would be challenging for such a small, highly technical force.

It is certainly the case that this mismatch between future needs and resources is in part the inevitable by-product of a sudden change of strategic priorities, though whether in practical terms that is a tolerable defence is highly doubtful. Yet there is a greater cognitive dissonance at work.

Clausewitz held, from the inception of his life’s work investigating the nature of warfare, a central, important comprehension, a great strand that would run through his work. Military manoeuvre is pointless unless it is designed to culminate in battle, and battle is pointless unless it is designed to serve the ultimate purpose of a given war. The SNP’s defence policy is flawed because it is not designed to serve any strategic purpose.

It is, at its heart, cobbled together mainly on the vague understanding that nations have armed forces, and that an independent Scotland would on that basis need one. To this is added an understandable desire to take a share of the existent British Armed forces. National pride is an important motivator, a point evidenced by the SNP’s ludicrous, populist focus on the idea that an independent Scottish Army would bring back historic Scottish regiments, something that in real terms could only mean an army-focused Scottish Defence Force when a maritime focus would be the strategically more sensible option. Amongst the only parts of the SNP’s strategy that displays any ambition are those concerning the size of the future force and the resources that it would command.

Tellingly, the single aspect of defence policy seen to warrant any extensive official comment from the SNP is economic impact. This attention has centred on the (implausible) nationalist argument that independence would not harm the Scottish defence industry, parallel to the declaration of their intent to situate future naval bases in accordance with economic, not strategic considerations. That this is the SNP’s only clear defence goal betrays the insularity of nationalist thought. More than that, it helps explain why their plans for the defence of an independent Scotland are, in actuality, neither plans nor concerned with defence.

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At last, the Scottish Tories seem to be moving in the right devolutionary direction

Nik Darlington 3.02pm

At long last, the Scottish Conservatives are moving in the right direction on devolution.

Nearly one year ago, when commenting on the launch of the unionist Devo Plus group, I wrote that the Tories have to embrace greater devolution if they are to make any meaningful inroads in Scottish politics. Ruth Davidson assumed the leadership with a supposed "line in the sand" and little more than lukewarm acknowledgement of the Scotland Bill (which received Royal Assent last May). That line in the sand had to shift.

Now it seems to be doing so. Ms Davidson is already undertaking an internal review of devolution, though that in itself is only encouraging in part. More so is the recent intervention by Scotland Office minister David Mundell, the sole Tory MP north of the border.

The Scotsman reports today on research compiled by the Centre for Public Policy for the Regions, calling for MSPs to take control of £22 billion worth of extra tax-raising powers. And indeed they should. I’ve long maintained that a Tory revival in Scotland is largely dependent on Holyrood becoming as responsible for raising money as it is for spending it. What’s more, greater tax flexibility could be the making of Scotland.

Mr Mundell appears to have embraced this position and claimed that the pro-union parties will have put a proper devolution offer on the table long before the SNP gets round to spelling out its own case for independence (the amateurish efforts over the past year frankly do not count - or at least Nat supporters should hope so).

Scots will vote to remain in the Union, of that I have little doubt. Yet without a compellingly pro-devolution case put in advance, many shall do so begrudgingly. That is why this is a crucial moment for the Scottish Conservatives. Remember, however Scottish he himself is, David Mundell is merely an ‘English minister’ in the government of an ‘English Prime Minister’. To resonate truly, the party in Scotland must follow his lead.

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Brian Monteith’s ‘speech that Ruth won’t make’ is worth a wry read for Scottish Tories

Nik Darlington 9.53am

Ruth Davidson has been leader of the Scottish Conservative & Unionist party for twelve months, and she is marking it today with a speech.

We have aired differing views about Ms Davidson on these pages. Prior to the leadership election, Craig Barrett wrote a compelling case for her candidacy. Yet I have harboured doubts for some time about her effectiveness in post. A refusal to countenance greater devolution in Scotland weakens her position in the great independence / separation debate; she is also missing an opportunity to craft an appealingly distinctive Tory message.

Moreover, even the early arguments in her favour tended to focus on who she wasn’t (Murdo Fraser) and who was supporting her.

The Scotsman's Brian Monteith has a playful piece in the paper this morning, about “the speech that Ruth won’t make”. The nub of it is devolution, and more of it. Worth reading in full, but here’s an extract:

…until we are honest with ourselves and identify what we are doing wrong, we shall never be able to move forward and be taken in trust by the Scottish public.

So tonight I wish to say a few home truths, not just to you here but to the Scottish people outside.

…we have allowed ourselves to be defined as anti-Scottish. Not because we are, but because it suits them to cast us as outside of society, to de-normalise voting Conservative.

Since becoming leader, I have challenged David Cameron on issues, like supporting a Heathrow third runway, when it has been in Scotland’s interests to do so.  But that is not enough, for we - the oldest political party in Scotland - are still defined as an English party. For us to advance, that must end… We must change and we should recognise in the spirit of Disraeli that to make devolution work requires us to recast Great Britain.

We must, therefore, recognise that the devolution settlement needs a new federal Britain where Scotland stands proudly within the British family. We can reduce the number of politicians, we can reduce the amount of government - call it Devo Simple or Devo Federal - but we must become the advocate of positive change rather than the beleaguered rearguard against inevitable defeat.

Only then, for us, can things get better.

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Wine trade weighs in against Scotland’s minimum alcohol pricing

Nik Darlington 9.48am

In the spring, David Cameron announced that the Government would set a minimum unit price for alcohol and ban multi-buy discounts in England. The policy is presently under consultation, with legislation promised in the autumn.

The Scottish Parliament, meanwhile, has already ratified a ban last year on “irresponsible” alcoholic drinks promotions (which apparently caused a fall in sales even in the typically busy pre-Christmas period).

Alex Salmond’s Scottish government is also determined to press on with its plan to introduce minimum alcohol pricing at 50 pence per unit (25 per cent higher than David Cameron’s proposed 40 pence).

The Scotch whisky industry’s opposition to the SNP’s policy - which could mean a bottle of blended whisky’s costing at least £14 - is well documented. The Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) recently submitted a formal complaint to the European Commission and is seeking a judicial review in the Scottish courts. Whisky producers claim that the SNP’s minimum pricing would breach EU trade laws.

Now, according to the Express, the wine trade is getting in on the act too. The Comité Européen des Entreprises Vins (CEEV) has joined forces with the SWA to oppose minimum unit pricing on the grounds that wine is classified as an “agricultural product” by the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). And like other agricultural products - such as sugar - wine is regulated at the EU level or else there is the risk of breaching trade laws.

The SNP says it shall carry on regardless with its “proportionate public health measures”.

There is an irony here in that minimum alcohol pricing could be in the interests of some members of the wine trade, principally independent merchants who are undercut by supermarkets’ volume purchasing power and aggressive discounting. Supermarkets make 80 per cent of wine sales in the UK. Minimum pricing could make the independents more competitive on price.

Furthermore, approximately three-quarters of all alcohol purchased in the UK is on discount - far and away the highest proportion in the EU. Restrictions on alcohol promotion would hit supermarkets’ BOGOF and multi-buy attractions, and offer another silver lining for smaller wine merchants.

But one thing is for sure. The SNP is finding out the hard way that genuine independence only runs so deep within the realms of the European Union.

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Why Scotland needs Devo Plus, and why Conservatives and all unionists need to support it

Alex Fergusson MSP 6.00am

Immediately following the recent launch of Devo Plus, a group on which I am pleased to sit, the Tory Reform Group tweeted:

"Devo Plus is a campaign that unionists would be worthwhile supporting."

Needless to say, I entirely agree, but allow me to explain why.

I must begin by saying that I am every bit as much a unionist and a Conservative as all of my colleagues in the party. From Ruth Davidson to Murdo Fraser, Michael Forsyth to Malcolm Rifkind, we are all Conservatives and we are all unionists.

But what I believe we need to accept, fundamentally, is that the very notion of unionism is a variable rather than a fixed point on the constitutional spectrum. However, it is fair to say that Michael Forsyth’s view of unionism is rather different to mine, in that I firmly believe that we need to embrace that notion, rather than simply try to hide it.

My vision of unionism is a decentralising one in accordance, I think, with basic Conservative philosophy. I want to see each layer of government, from Westminster to Holyrood to local authorities, broadly raising the money they are responsible for spending.

That is the reasoning behind Devo Plus, and it is based quite simply on the principle of financial accountability - a principle that is sadly lacking in our current constitutional structure. It is practised in other strong unions throughout the world, including those of our transatlantic friends in Canada and the United States and, frankly, it is ‘beyond bonkers’ (to pinch a phrase from another former Presiding Officer!) to suggest that it cannot work here.

So for me the unionist box is firmly ticked. What about the Conservative one?

Firstly, localism is a key part of David Cameron’s overarching agenda, and Devo Plus is simply localism in action.

Secondly, it’s hardly a secret that the Scottish Tories have not exactly enjoyed increasing popularity since devolution, and a big part of that problem is our perceived unwillingness to give the Scottish people what opinion poll after opinion poll tells us they want: a more responsible, autonomous and accountable Scottish Parliament within a solid United Kingdom.

Our party - indeed, all parties - are now talking about this issue, and that is encouraging. In my view the end point is clear. The seeds of a Conservative comeback can be sown by embracing the principles of Devo Plus. We should make it clear to the Scottish people that a “no” vote in the referendum does not mean a continuation of the status quo, but that it means a journey towards Devo Plus.

Alex Fergusson is the Conservative MSP for Galloway & West Dumfries and was the Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament from 2007 to 2011.

Scottish Tories won’t advance until they support more devolution for Scotland

Nik Darlington 10.32am

If unionists in the Conservative party - and I presume, perhaps too romantically, this means most people in the Conservative party - want to win the Scottish independence debate, they must see the necessity for further devolution.

Resistance to devolution fuels the perceptions of English prejudice and arrogance on which the SNP feeds. It runs contrary to the party’s localism agenda, and the innate Tory values about freedom and ‘little platoons’, about power being best exercised the closer to the people it affects. And it ignores the basic fact that the surest route to a Conservative renaissance in Scotland is by forcing Scottish politicians to raise as well as spend Scottish taxes.

Yet frustratingly, resistance seems to be the default position for many Tories, most worryingly so in Scotland itself. Prior to being elected leader of the Scottish Conservatives, with minority support among her own MSPs, Ruth Davidson vowed to draw “a line in the sand” and oppose any further devolution beyond the Scotland Bill. This intransigence might have won the favour of the party faithful (though I wager Scottish party members were more scared by Murdo Fraser’s radicalism than wooed by Ms Davidson’s obduracy). But it won’t win Holyrood seats, nor will it win the impending independence referendum.

So it is hugely encouraging that yesterday some Scottish Tories lent their support to a new unionist devolution campaign that aims to challenge the SNP’s desire for total separation.

Devo Plus is headed by Jeremy Purvis, the former Lib Dem MSP. It has cross-party support from the likes of Tory MSP and former Presiding Officer, Alex Fergusson; Tavish Scott MSP, the former Scottish Lib Dem leader; and Labour MSP Duncan MacNeill.

National Insurance, VAT and smaller levies like TV licences would be retained by Westminster, but most other taxes, including income tax and corporation tax, would be transferred to the Scottish Government. There would also be a geographic settlement of oil revenues.

As I wrote for Total Politics last October, lower taxes could be the making of Scotland, turning it into a kilted Asian tiger economy. Devo Plus offers this prospect, the chance of a new Scotland ‘on the make’, and the imposition of fiscal responsibility on Holyrood’s politicians, who in simple terms just spend other people’s money. Falling short of ‘devo max’, Devo Plus ought to look an attractive option for Conservatives in favour of local accountability and critical of the fiscal deficit between England and Scotland.

But what happened yesterday? The SNP quickly endorsed ‘devo plus’ as their preferred third option on the independence ballot paper. The nationalists’ conversion from ‘devo max’ to ‘devo plus’ was as speedy as it was cynical. But it has, for now, left opponents still treading water.

We have reports of the Scottish Tories being “at loggerheads” over the new campaign. Alex Fergusson hinted at a dangerous divide between Ms Davidson and many of her MSPs.

David McLetchie, the Scottish Tories’ constitution spokesman, called Devo Plus a distraction that is “playing into Alex Salmond’s hands”. This could not be further from the truth. Devo Plus may not end up being the right answer, but the Scottish Tory leadership should at the very least be trying to ask some questions.

Scots want more devolution. Ignoring this simple fact is what plays into Mr Salmond’s hands and perpetuates the assumption that the Conservative party is an English party, first and foremost. It amounts not so much to drawing lines in the sand, as sticking one’s head in it.

When the Prime Minister visited Edinburgh to make his powerful, emotional case for the Union, he promised greater devolution for Scots if they vote to stay. But in the process of publicly refuting the leader of his party in Scotland - “blurring the line in the sand”, according to Mr Fergusson - David Cameron failed to say what this greater devolution might look like.

It might, just might, look like Devo Plus.

A federal UK can save the Union

Alexander Pannett 11.15am

It is a strangely multilateral metaphor, the Union Jack.

It is one of the oldest flags in the world, formed from the constituent symbols of the United Kingdom, one of the first and arguably one of the most successful supra-national political unions in the world.