Defending an Independent Scotland – Richard Marsh

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Our report on defending an independent Scotland, A’ the Blue Bonnets, was published by the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in 2012.  The report remains the only credible costed model of how an independent Scotland could defend itself.

Since then, much has changed in terms of the UK’s place in Europe and the demands placed on its armed forces.  We have published two updates to the RUSI report refining the makeup of an independent Scotland’s defences.

Both updates have revealed that the cost of defending an independent Scotland remains lower than the figures set out in both the Scottish Government’s 2013 White Paper (Scotland’s Future) and the more recent Sustainable Growth Commission report (2018).

Our most recent update was published last month and was covered by the UK Defence Journal and The Economist (How Scottish independence would threaten Britain’s defence, 5 Nov 2020).

Most responses to our report focused heavily on the UK’s nuclear deterrent and the extent to which Scottish independence would either threaten or accommodate the UK’s current defence plans.

The more ambitious defence spending plans set out in the White Paper and Sustainable Growth Commission were reflected in the responses from those advocating independence, with defence spending in an independent Scotland expected to match Scandinavian defence budgets.

The thinking is this would make an independent Scotland more like Denmark or Norway.  This reveals both woolly thinking and a lack of diversity in the debate over defending an independent Scotland.

It is a deeply flawed approach to start with the ambition of matching the spending plans of other neighbouring countries.  At best, this limits debate to off-the-shelf models which may be ill-suited to Scotland’s defence needs and replicate rather than complement the defence capacity of Scotland’s neighbours.

The most recent Scottish Government data gives an estimate of nearly £3.5 billion in annual defence expenditure allocated to Scotland in 2019-2020 (Government Expenditure and Revenue in Scotland).  Our latest report showed the annual defence budget for an independent Scotland had fallen to between £1.1 and £1.3 billion.  This reflects an expectation that an independent Scotland would not want, or need, to become a smaller version of the UK with full-spectrum military capability.

Scotland, instead, would move away from an army-heavy model towards a more balanced requirement.  A defence force of this nature would comprise 11,000 personnel in total, with around 50 aircraft and 20 vessels.

The defence budget and potential savings are based on considering the purpose of Scotland’s armed forces, estimating the number of service personnel and the type and amount of equipment needed to meet that purpose and (finally) the cost of maintaining that level of personnel and equipment.  This suggests significant cost savings could be realised, particularly as some defence costs could be partially offset by leasing military assets to international partners.

Moreover, it would be easier for Scotland to augment an initially modest commitment rather than gradually unwinding itself from grander global commitments.  Successive reviews of the UK’s defence and security serve as a warning on the difficulties of reverse engineering.

The UK’s long-delayed ‘Integrated Review’ into security, defence, development and foreign policy has already raised questions over the breadth of the UK’s military capability.  Some of the issues to be tackled by the review echo our findings from the report on defending an independent Scotland; particularly the need for a nimbler military, focused on current and future defence needs.

Arguably, the UK’s defence review will provide a better guide for how an independent Scotland should defend itself than the current thinking of simply matching Scandinavian spending plans. Although if Scotland were to become independent the UK would face another defence review (albeit less integrated) before the ink is dry on the current one.

Ambitious military plans for an independent Scotland may sound attractive if taken in isolation.  But this would mean diverting public spending from areas like health, housing, education and welfare.

The quality of debate around some of these issues on defence and foreign policy could, and should, be lifted by engaging a much wider audience – including those who may not support independence, or even those who oppose it.

Too often in Scotland debate focuses on how to maximise budgets and expenditure rather than achieving outcomes and delivering public services more efficiently.  Scotland should consider a wider range of views and first focus on what it would need to defend its interests.  Basing future plans on pragmatic consensus, would make Scotland more like Denmark or Norway.

Richard Marsh is Director of economics at 4-consulting, he is an economist specialising in regional economics and economic statistics. Richard contributed to the First Minister’s Sustainable Growth Commission, working on the economic value of migration.