Defence is a touchstone issue for independence: it’s one of those themes that divide people the most when it comes to the shape of a Scotland outside the Union.
So far at least, the SNP has not produced a blueprint of how it would like defence to work in an independent Scotland, and is unlikely to do so much before next November.
As a result, the rest of us are left hypothesising and projecting our best guesses on what might happen.
Yesterday, the Scotsman hosted a conference bringing together the most authoritative best guessers in the country. There were military historians, defence analysts, industry experts, former soldiers, civil servants and lobbyists – all of whom tried to bring their experience to bear on this most central of independence questions.
The result was a picture that was, for the first time, clear – but also salutary. In coming together as they did, the experts also blew apart a number of assumptions which have underpinned the thinking of both sides of the independence argument when it comes to defence. These were:
1 – Scotland will not be able to afford its own defence forces after independence
This was dismantled in a very detailed paper by Lieutenant Colonel Stuart Crawford, one-time tank commander and also one-time SNP spokesman on defence.
Lt Col Crawford was not speaking as an SNP spokesman, far from it. He was speaking as a defence expert, someone who had used all his experience to work out what an independent Scotland would need militarily, and then – with the help of economist Richard Marsh – they worked out how much this might cost.
The result was a “modest” military force, somewhere between Ireland’s small armed forces and Denmark’s relatively substantial one, at a cost of about £2 billion a year.
Given that Scotland pays about £3.3 billion a year to the UK armed forces this would give a so-called “peace dividend” to the newly independent Scotland of about £1 billion a year.
It is understood that SNP planners intend a more substantial military than that envisaged by Lt Col Crawford, something nearer to Denmark’s, but this could still come in well under the £3.3 billion currently spent by Scotland on defence.
2 – Scotland’s defence industries can survive and even thrive after independence
This time it was an SNP assumption under attack. Two leading experts, Professor Trevor Taylor, a professorial research fellow in defence management at the Royal United Services Institute, and Ian Godden, formerly the chairman of the one big lobbying organisation for the defence industry, warned that Scotland’s defence industries would suffer hugely after independence.
There are between 12,500 and 16,000 people employed in the defence industries in Scotland. Most owe their jobs to UK contracts – the shipbuilding centres on the Clyde and at Rosyth, employing nearly 5,000 people between, them are a case in point.
After independence, these centres could not and should not rely on Royal Navy orders. They would have to compete for the orders with every other foreign country and both Professor Taylor and Mr Godden believed that they would find it hard to do so.
More than that, the two experts warned that other key parts of the defence industry in Scotland, including the hi-tech airborne radar work done in Edinburgh, would be under direct threat without the umbrella of support the UK provides.
Mr Godden said the only way to keep a defence industry in Scotland was to have a major, pro-active programme of investment and support from the Scottish Government. Not only has he seen no sign of that so far, but he fears that defence is seen as “too nasty” and that the left-leaning Scottish Government would not adopt a proper policy to save the defence industry anyway.
All of these conclusions suggest, as far as these two experts are concerned, that the once-great Scottish defence industry will disappear after independence, taking up to 16,000 jobs with it.
3 – Scotland will just inherit its share of the UK military, including its own regiments
Professor Hew Strachan of Oxford University was the first to urge caution about this. He warned that, after independence, many Scots would choose to continue to serve in the UK armed forces and would not return to serve in a Scottish defence force.
For career soldiers, seamen and airman, the UK provides the sort of experience they want. They get the best kit, they get to challenge themselves in the harshest environments – including war zones – and they get to train alongside the world’s best, in the United States.
Compare that to the prospect of staying in Scotland in a defence force without any large ships or submarines, possibly without any fast jets or tanks and with a military generally confined to the fringes of the North Sea or the odd humanitarian mission to Africa.
The academics and experts said that while Scotland may be allocated its share of the UK military, it may find it tough to entice the service personnel back that it needs to run it.
4 – An independent Scotland will not be a target for terrorists
Clive Fairweather, former deputy commander of the SAS, seized this particular assumption and took it to pieces.
While it was true, Mr Fairweather admitted, that an independent Scotland might not take part in wars like Iraq or Afghanistan, its oil fields were ripe for terrorist threat, particularly of the more piratical kind from terrorists looking to take hostages and demand money in return.
As a result, Scotland would need its own special forces trained specifically in oil rig work. Not only would these not come cheap, but they would be hard to staff because – as Mr Fairweather said supporting the earlier point made by Professor Strachan – most Scots in the SAS and SBS would choose to stay on in England because the prospects of doing proper, exciting stuff would remain better there.
5 – Trident will go from Scottish waters immediately after independence
The issue of Trident dominated the first half of the conference. Everyone knows it is SNP policy to eject nuclear weapons from the Clyde after independence. But will it happen?
It is possible, but there are those of a more practical bent in the SNP who believe that Trident gives them a powerful bargaining chip with the UK Government, particularly as there is nowhere else for the submarines to be based.
Incidentally, it is not Faslane that is the problem, apparently – it is Coulport, where the missiles are stored. The subs could be found a home in England, but it would cost too much and be impossible to recreate a substitute for Coulport south of the border – that is the sticking point.
The SNP could offer to keep Trident for a few years in return for some major concessions from the UK Government on defence – maybe continuing use of Scottish air bases to provide cover for Scottish waters or use of UK training bases for Scottish personnel, that sort of thing.
But there is also the issue of the Americans. Alex Salmond will be keen to keep in with the Americans after independence. And while the Obama administration is moving towards more disarmament than any of its predecessors, the US would be alarmed if Scotland kicked out the UK deterrent and left the UK without any nuclear weapons, or at least without a base for them.
All these practical considerations – as well as the thorny issue of NATO – suggest that Trident will go, certainly, but perhaps not for some time after independence.