2013 Festival of Politics V—Defence

This was, for me, the highlight of the whole weekend. Unlike the other panels, which consisted largely of academics and commentators—albeit very capable ones—this featured two heavyweight politicians at the top of their game. They did not disappoint.

  • Professor Louise Richardson, Principal and Vice-Chancellor, St Andrews (Chair)
  • Angus Robertson MP for Moray, Shadow Minister for Defence & Foreign Affairs
  • Professor Hew Strachan, University of Oxford, ex-Director of Scottish School of War Studies
  • Jim Murphy MP for Eastwood, Shadow Secretary of State for Defence

It says much for the capabilities of the Chair and Hew Strachan that they managed to get their views in between the other two. And this is not to say that it denigrated into the usual political yah-boo-sucks typical of Westminster PMQ. Though they hold violently opposing views and articulate them fluently and coherently, lacing them with irony and humour to the point of entertainment, this was a real debate and one it was a privilege to witness.

Angus is as cosmopolitan a man as you can find, having worked extensively in and around Vienna and is fluent in both German and things European. His constituency was the most defence-oriented in Scotland but is now being ravaged by the 2-of-3 air bases cut meted out by the MoD. Elected in 2001 to replace the late Margaret Ewing, as Leader of the SNP group at Westminster he has galvanised his group of six to be an articulate and effective voice on behalf of Scotland putting a much larger group of Scottish Labour MPs to shame.

Jim Murphy is thoroughly deserving of the high status he has achieved. Starting with what should have been the impossible of capturing the safest Tory seat in Scotland in 1997, he showed himself adept at making it his own and now has a bigger majority than the 10,240 he overcame. Starting in 2005, he has held successively higher posts within Labour, including Secretary of State for Scotland, and was regarded as a ‘safe pair of hands’ in all. A vegetarian marathon runner, Jim has an actor’s ability to tailor his body language and delivery to the debate at hand.

After agreeing that defence was unlikely to be decisive in the independence debate, the panel nonetheless also agreed that it was one of the few vital areas of state over which the Scottish Parliament did not have control. Further harmony ensued over the idea that there was little immediate threat to scotland but that, were it to come, it was likely to be in the North Sea and from the Arctic. With themeling of the polar ise cap, the latter was likely to assume more importance than heretofore.

Hew Strachan expanded on Scotland being blessed with a relatively secure position. The biggest threat he saw was the transfer of US (and therefore NATO) focus to Asia/Pacific. This would mean Europe becoming more self-sufficient within NATO and, as co-operation on air/maritime defence is crucial, allies will be an essential element of any credible defence for Scotland. However, he was not sure that a nuclear-free Scotland with only a conventional Coulport/HMNB Clyde would be acceptable to them.

Angus’ main thesis was that the present UK military posture was not appropriate for Scotland. The more obvious elements were the complete absence of long-range maritime patrol capability since the scrapping of Nimrods and their replacement and of any major surface vessels in the critical North Sea arena. Denmark currently spends 1.7% of national wealth on defence, (UK is at 2.5%, which translates to Scotland’s share being over £3.6bn). He argued a much more appropriate defence was available for between £1.6bn (weaker & comparable to Eire) and £2.5bn (comparable capability to Denmark). The key point he made was that everyone—with the possible exception of the USA—could not afford a full-spectrum defence. Interesting data on the perceived usefulness of our £3bn-and-about-to-cost-more nuclear ‘capability’ was gathered by whatscotlandthinks.org

Those Who Think UK Nuclear Deterrence s Effective vs Various Threats (Source: whatscotlandthinks.org)

Those Who Think UK Nuclear Deterrence s Effective vs Various Threats (Source: whatscotlandthinks.org)

Jim focussed on the inability of a country the size of Scotland to maintain the level of ‘clout’ that the UK enjoys. This involves many advantages, including a seat on the UN Security Council, global deployment ability and a credible 24/7 nuclear retaliation. He did not mention any ‘special relationship’ with the US (although Cameron does and Blair did). Only the UK could afford GHQ, which is key in the fight against terrorism, especially cyber-terrorism. We can never be sure of the focus of threats as they change: in 1997, the focus was Northern Ireland and little thought was given to Afghanistan, Libya or Syria; the number of unstable states in the world continues to be double that of stable states.

Hew broadly supported this and argued the 1.7% benchmark was approaching the problem from the wrong end. He was particularly concerned with what he called “infrastructure enablers’ like training and intelligence (again referring to GHQ) and he did emphasise that Scotland’s position required that, rather than arguments about revival of Scots regiments, serious investment in air and maritime which required, as he put it, ‘expensive kit’. Where he did agree with Angus was in the need to any Scottish force to specialise, possibly in an armed policing role which other countries do poorly. Angus agreed, suggesting this was one of the key contributions that Scotland might make. He cited Scandinavia as a model; they provide 25% of all UN peacekeepers, not least because of their reputation for both competence and recognised neutrality and fairness.

As the (lively) debate progressed, it became clear that the two main protagonists were making distinct assumptions about the defence posture to be adopted. Jim clearly saw the global strategic role that the UK played for the last two centuries continuing into the 21st century and argued—quite plausibly—that only larger countries would be able to fund and deploy all the resources necessary to do that. He also argued that Scotland would lose 12,000 MoD workers contributing £1.8bn to the Scottish economy, largely in shipbuilding and the Global Combat Ship would not be built in a ‘foreign’ country. Left to itself, even if it spent £2.5bn, such funds would not go far in defence. He seemed to be recycling the gist of a negative article that appeared the same day in the Sunday Post

In riposte, Angus pointed out that the 5,000 shipyard workers would soon reduce to 1,500 as the QE class carriers neared completion and that, while less than our share of MoD money was spent in Scotland, it still paid £13.4bn of the £160bn MoD procurement budget. But, to him, the key issue was the role envisioned. Scotland had no pretensions at being a world power, especially not on the Security Council or in the nuclear club. To him, it was self-evident that Scots & English should work together, whether in re-introducing real LRMR capability towards the North, working with the Irish, developing the next generation of frigates and co-operating within NATO.

The Defence Panel (l to r) Angus Robertson; Hew Strachan; Louise Richardson; Jim Murphy

The Defence Panel (l to r) Angus Robertson; Hew Strachan; Louise Richardson; Jim Murphy

But it was left to Hew, on the back of a question from the audience, to ask if the real debate was not whether the whole UK—with or without Scotland—was of sufficient size and financial heft to support the kind of global posture that it had to date. He felt that the debate on pros and cons on Scotland’s defence might be distracting from the far more urgent question just what the UK could afford and what other elements of a broad defence spectrum besides LRMR and Harriers must be considered unaffordable.

About davidsberry

Local ex-councillor, tour guide and database designer. Keen on wildlife, history, boats and music. Retired in 2017.
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