This was the title of a very interesting and informative talk by professor Hew Strachan earlier this week. The professor is a military historian, currently at All Souls College, Oxford. Though he is clearly a Unionist, his talk was on the whole quite balanced and fair. His default position is that Scotland’s defence is best secured by remaining in the UK. He sought to justify this position by the claim that small countries are almost by definition more at risk than large countries. When it comes to defence and the military, size does matter. However the evidence, some of which he provided himself, does not in any way back this up. Firstly being part of the UK and its Empire, then the largest in the world, did not protect Scotland from the horrors of the First and the Second World Wars. Secondly the experience of other small countries such as Norway and Denmark for example, both of which were invaded and occupied during WW2 has not persuaded either to give up their independence, however exposed they might remain. Thirdly as Professor Strachan himself pointed out any future threat to the peace of Europe is most like to come from a global conflagration involving the really big powers in the world – USA, Russia, China and rising powers such as India, Brazil etc. If Professor Strachan is serious about the need for Scotland to be part of a larger country to secure its defence, then the UK is much to small to provide this security. The professor’s logic would lead to the creation of a United States of Europe with its own powerful military. Something the good professor did not touch on at all.
When it came to looking at what the military in an independent Scotland might look like, he was on securer grounds and made some useful and pertinent comments and suggestions. He did of course fall into the sin of only talking about the SNP and their defence proposals. He seemed to be pretty much unaware of the options put forward by other parties and groups on the Yes side. On the plus side he was very confident that an independent Scotland would be welcomed into NATO. The geopolitical situation would ensure that NATO needed Scotland at least as much as Scotland might need NATO. He was also, perhaps surprisingly, quite clear that if an independent Scotland decided to get rid of the Trident submarine base, then this would automatically lead to the rUK giving these nuclear weapons up. He even went so far as to suggest that most of the Ministry of Defence would welcome this. Most in that ministry apparently regard Trident as a useless waste of money. The good professor disagrees with this view by the way.
Professor Strachan’s other interesting observations were on the possible composition of defence forces in an independent Scotland. He advocated that more time was spent on analysing the potential threats to Scotland and less on what hardware might be inherited from the UK. Good advice really. His view is that the key priority for Scotland will be the North Sea and this implies a much greater need for air and naval forces than for a land army. He suggested that automated planes and submarines should form a significant part of these forces. In response to a question he acknowledged that the UK at present does not offer any kind of naval presence or protection for Scotland’s share of the North Sea. Not much of an advert for Better Together. While this emphasis on the North Sea is in part reflected in the government’s White Paper, he did forcefully question the SNP plans to retain all the names and identities of the Scottish regiments. There is unlikely to be enough regiments in an independent Scotland to make this a serious option. A significant land force might still be needed according to Professor Strachan in order to fulfil our commitments to NATO. For he was keen to emphasize that as part of a collective, shared defence organization, Scotland would be expected to offer something in the way of a fighting force. Whether this is really true, I will leave to others more knowledgeable than I. Iceland I seem to recall does not have anything more than fishing protection vessels. Perhaps we could get away with a predominantly ceremonial army when independent.
All in all a most interesting talk. It was good to get confirmation from such a respected source that there will be no problems for Scotland to enter NATO, assuming the next government wants to do so. Nor will there be any serious problems in getting rid of Trident. It was also interesting to note that throughout he used the pronoun we, when talking about an independent Scotland, even though he doesn’t live here at present. I got the impression that though a Unionist, he was not too bothered about the prospect of Scotland becoming independent.