Scotland’s defence debate has revolved around two key but interrelated policy positions. Firstly, the Scottish Government’s intention to maintain Scotland’s place within NATO. Secondly, its commitment to remove the UK’s nuclear deterrent from Scotland in the event of independence. As the leaders of NATO members met for its summit in Cardiff last week it is not surprising that these issues are again being debated. We have also had two major interventions to this discussion; one from retired British General Richard Shirreff; and one from the recently retired UK ambassador to NATO and former Director-General of defence and intelligence at the Foreign Office, Dame Mariot Leslie.
Both interventions have been seized upon by the rival ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ camps. General Shirreff mounted criticism on the Scottish Government’s defence plans, particularly on a perceived failure to highlight the importance of maritime forces if Scotland becomes independent. Scotland, he argued, would be barred from NATO on the grounds that other members would veto Scottish membership. Conversely, Dame Leslie has stated that Scotland would not face any major hurdle in joining the alliance despite the Scottish Government’s anti-nuclear-weapons stance. Where does this latest altercation leave us? Can Scotland join NATO and still be anti-nuclear? The simple answer is Yes. Indeed, there is a strong case to be made for saying that NATO would need an independent Scotland just as much (if not more) than an independent Scotland would need NATO.
In the event of a Yes vote the Scottish Government will contact NATO to officially request membership. The Scottish Government has already stated in its White Paper that it will sign the ‘Strategic Concept’, which underlines that NATO is a nuclear alliance. Doing so would lift the main barrier to membership. According to the ‘No’ campaign, a second barrier to Scottish membership would still exist in the form of the Scottish Government’s policy of wanting to remove Trident from the Clyde in the event of a Yes vote. This stance, they argue, would force the unilateral disarmament of the rest of the UK (rUK). However, it is worth noting that the Scottish Government has never suggested that it would force rUK into nuclear disarmament. In fact, the White Paper states that rUK’s nuclear status would be a decision for London, not Edinburgh. The Scottish Government, for its part, has consistently said that it should be removed as quickly and safely as is reasonably responsible. This hardly constitutes a forceful stance.
The timing of Trident’s exit from Scotland is of great importance and this would be negotiated between Scotland and rUK. The removal of Trident from Scotland may take longer than some people may want – between 10- 14 years rather than the 2 years outlined by Scotland CND. If Scotland demonstrates a reasonable flexibility on this issue, it seems hugely unlikely that Scotland would be denied NATO membership. Despite General Shirreff’s warning that Scottish membership would be vetoed by NATO members, in fact no member state (including the UK) has actually said as much. Whilst it is a fact of international relations that states prefer to keep things the way they are, it is also the case that a Yes vote would change the strategic environment. NATO’s members would – necessarily – react to that change. Preferring the status quo does not equate to barring Scottish membership, should the issue come up.
If we eliminate Trident from the equation and simply consider Scotland’s suitability for NATO, things are straightforward. Scotland sits in a geo-strategically important position at the very heart of the Transatlantic region and it could contribute vital military assets to the North Sea and Eastern Atlantic where UK capability gaps currently exist and are currently plugged by Norway and Denmark.
In short, it is difficult to see how an independent Scotland would go to the back of the NATO queue as General Shirreff has suggested. NATO’s ‘open door’ policy – enshrined in Article 10 of the Washington Treaty and reaffirmed in NATO’s 2010 Strategic Concept – stipulates that any European state wishing to fulfil the Treaty obligations is open to apply for full membership. Given its long history within NATO as part of the UK, and given that an independent Scotland would possess both military assets of value to NATO and a willingness to use those assets under the NATO banner, it seems clear that Scotland’s case for NATO membership would be strong.
At a time when NATO is being stretched by multiple threats, the notion that it would deny membership to a democratic North Atlantic state with a long history in the alliance, and which is more than willing to contribute to the Transatlantic security agenda, is specious. Rejecting Scotland on the basis of its democratic wish to adopt the same nuclear-weapons-free stance adopted by nearly every other NATO member would also raise questions over NATO’s oft-cited commitment to democracy. In short, leaving Scotland out in the cold would undermine NATO’s integrated defence, something which is in no one’s interest, least of all that of the rUK. Indeed, should London play hardball on the issue, one would expect other NATO states to turn their questions to London rather than Edinburgh.
Dr Colin Fleming is a Research Fellow at Edinburgh University and is a project leader with the Centre for Constitutional Change.