Monday, 23 January 2012

Scotland and Defence

Scotland's contribution to the Union of the UK has been enormous and, few would argue that the contribution has been well in excess of our population size or even resources, even prior to the discovery of oil. We don't always like to admit it but we did more than our share of empire building and the one part we do like to claim, our contribution to the Enlightenment, has been universally recognised. There is one very specific area however, where we consistently punched above our weight and not always to our own advantage. That was in the area of war, for which we had an international reputation in Europe long before the Treaty of Union in 1707. Since then, that reputation has been enhanced considerably.

Despite that history of martial achievment, it is one area of policy in which the SNP has been weakest, with contradiction after contradiction littering policy statements, particularly since 1990. Prior to that, the party policy was reasonably straightforward, highlighted by opposition to nuclear weapons which obviously entailed the removal of nuclear weapons from Scottish territory. At first that meant opposition to Polaris, which brought the party into conflict with the White House as well as Westminster, leading to the nefarious activities and later replacement, of Funkhouser as American consul. The present policy calls for opposition to NATO membership, which chimes with the long-standing opposition to nuclear weapons. So far so good and there would appear to be a consistency in policy, with which few party members would quarrel, but which obviously puts the party into direct conflict with the rest of the UK. Unfortunately, while retaining its overall policy position, the SNP has occupied some strange policy positions along the way.

Scottish war losses were greater than those of any other part of the UK, bar none. This is accounted for in part by the fact that Scots have always contributed a higher than proportinate number of recruits to the defence of the UK. Nelson may have said, "England expects..." at the battle of Trafalgar but 25% of the men who crewed the UK ships were Scots. In WWI Scotland suffered 20% of UK casualties, despite having only 10% of the population; 27% of all Scots who were mobilised were killed as opposed to 12% of the UK as a whole and Scotland's losses were 1% of the total population as opposed to 0.7% of the UK. In WWII, the same pattern applied, with Scots suffering over 13% of the UK losses despite the population having fallen to just over 9% of the UK total. In Korea 25% of the total losses were Scots and we provided 25% of the troops sent to Iraq in the opening days of that war. The suspicion arises therefore that those casualty figures did not arise by accident and Wolfe's dictum, as he tried to persuade Westminster to recruit from the Highlands of Scotland in the aftermath of the civil war of 1745, "They are little mischief if they fall..." has been followed ever since.

Despite those figures being common knowledge among Nationalists, when Westminster decided to abolish the historic Scottish regiments under the most recent army reforms in 2004/5, the SNP campaigned strongly to have them retained. The Highland regiments in particular have proved popular recruting agents for the British army and in common with the recruitinng policies throughout the UK, recruited from what became known as their "recruting areas" such as Tayside and Fife for the Black Watch and Aberdeen and the North East of Scotland for the Gordons. As the casualty figures mounted for those regiments, so the loss of life in their recruitment areas were higher than in other parts of the country. In WWI approximately 50,000 men served in the Black Watch which suffered 28,000 casualties with over 8,000 killed. Only the Royal Scots, which had 12,000 killed suffered a higher casualty rate. Despite being questioned strongly, the SNP could not, or would not, explain why they would campaign to retain regiments which had been used with such devastating effects on the lives of Scotland's young men.

They have found themselves in a similar corner on the question of the removal of Trident from the Clyde, which has been party policy since ever nuclear weapons were introduced to the most heavily populated area of Scotland. It has always been party policy to reduce the amount of defence expenditure in an independent Scotland, but during the latest round of defence cuts imposed by Westminster, when it was proposed that Scotland would lose two of its three air bases, the SNP campaigned for the retention of all three. Westminster has repeatedly used the threat of job losses in the defence industries such as shipbuilding or civilian jobs at the military bases such as Faslane, as an argument against independence, despite Scotland suffering severe losses in all those areas as a consequence of defence cuts in recent years. Instead of the SNP highlighting those cuts, to highlight the hypocrisy of Westminster's claims or to explain that the removal of nuclear weapons from Scotland would save in excess of £2 billion per annum, they have either remained silent - increasingly their reponse to other major problem areas such as the definition of independence - or have compromised their long-standing position on defence.

The Defence Secretary, Philp Hammond's, threat to charge Scotland for the cost of decommissioning Faslane and the Trident base should be treated with the contempt it deserves. Faced with the possibility of finding an alternative base somewhere in England, Westminster has suddenly wakened up to the contribution Scotland has made. Scots were never asked if they wanted this prime target placed close to our greatest population centre in the West of Scotland, we were simply expected to accept it just as we were expected to accept the use of Scottish regiments during two world wars. Suddenly Westminster is going to have to explain to the population in whichever part of England gets the honour of playing host to a weapons system that is retained so that the UK can keep its permanent place in the Security Council of the UN, just how important it will be for them to allow themselves to become a prime target if there ever was a nuclear war. After all, look at the jobs it will provide. This is one area where the SNP should stand by the principles on which its defence policy was founded.


  1. Excellent piece. No more needs to be said.

  2. The SNP has always been weak on defence and the recent 'one air force base, one naval base and a mobile army' soundbite shows exactly that.

    When I criticised the PR statement this week so many of the 'faithful' pilloried me and others suggested there is plenty time to decide upon defence once we're independent.

    If a political party is to be taken seriously it must possess a serious defence policy or are the SNP, with their determination to be part of the EU superstate, awaiting instructions from Brussels as to what would be needed?