The Corner

What Are the Defense Implications of Scottish Independence?

I have long sympathized to some extent with the idea of an independent Scotland, although a more federal United Kingdom has always seemed like the more practical path to arriving at many of the same benefits. Thus I was in agreement to at least some of John Fund’s arguments on the upcoming Scottish-independence referendum. However, I am surprised nobody at NR has thought much about the defense implications of a Scottish “Yes” vote.

First, it takes 5 million plus taxpayers, and most of the North Sea oil base, out of the funding available to keep the U.K. within the minimum 2 percent GDP contribution to its defense capabilities that NATO calls for, and converts Scotland into yet another free-rider on U.S. defense. It is highly unlikely that Scotland under the Scottish Nationalists will ever honor the NATO spending targets; in fact, their leader Alec Salmond has said it won’t explicitly.

Second, by requiring the U.K. to relocate the Trident nuclear-deterrent base from its current base at Faslane, a “Yes” vote will add tens of billions onto the U.K. defense budget at a time when it is being cut, and will put pressure on the U.K.’s ability to afford a Trident replacement. The U.K. will almost certainly cut other defense systems further rather than increase defense spending overall.

The U.K. is one of the very few of U.S. allies that has sent significant useful forces to assist in military operations. It is also the military most able to operate in conjunction with technologically sophisticated U.S. forces. Adding the substantial cost of relocating the Trident base to the cost of building a Trident replacement while defense budgets are already under pressure endangers the ability to continue maintaining this interoperability.

The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament has been a key constituency of the Scottish National Party for decades, and has a near-veto capability over its policies. It has seen its support of Scottish independence as a tactic to achieve its fundamental goal: nuclear disarmament of the U.K. If Scotland votes yes to secession, the group will be closer to this goal.

Finally, it’s important to understand the differences between the Czechoslovak velvet divorce and a British breakup: Czech and Slovak leaders had come to realize that socialism does not work; the Scots still think it can. Although they claim to want merely Scandinavian-style social democracy, they don’t seem to realize that the Swedish social democrats made substantial market reforms back in the 1990s. The very things they claim the need to secede from the UK in order to avoid — market-oriented reforms in healthcare and education — have gone far further in Sweden than the British Tories dare advocate.

And on a purely personal note, I am hoping for a “No” vote because of my enthusiasm for federal constitutions. It’s important to remember that the status quo is not actually on the ballot on September 18th. Under the pressure of the independence movement, all major parties in the U.K. have promised to deliver what amounts to major constitutional change in the event of a “No” vote — one that could even amount to a federal system. This prospect is far more interesting than that of Scotland as yet another boring European social democracy.

 James C. Bennett is the author of The Anglosphere Challenge.


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