The Security Implications of Scottish independence

The victory of Scottish nationalists in the recent Scottish Parliamentary elections brings closer the possibility of Scotland's independence. With Britain's nuclear arsenal located largely in Scotland, policymakers must now consider what independence would entail for the security of the United Kingdom.

By Mark Lynch for

10/06/2011 - The Scottish National Party's (SNP) landslide victory in the recent Scottish Parliament elections has opened the door for a referendum on Scottish independence in the latter half of the SNP's term in governance. While polling continues to show little support for Scottish independence amongst the Scottish electorate, a yes vote is not inconceivable given the SNP's ability to set the referendum date and tap into the deep rooted mistrust that has exists amongst the Scottish electorate for the Conservative party. [1] However, while there has been substantial analysis on the economic and social implications of Scottish independence, very little thought has been given to the effect the decision might have on British and European security. By omitting an analysis of the security implications of Scottish independence, the British military establishment may be caught cold by the developments that stem from Scotland's decision.

Integral to this debate is how an emerging Scotland would seek to account for its national security. The SNP have developed tentative plans to share armed forces and foreign policy with the UK in what critics have called 'independence lite', however, that would appear to be largely unworkable. The SNP have been at odds with the UK government on a number of key foreign policy issues including military involvement in both Iraq and Kosovo, making future military cooperation difficult. [2] Indeed, Sir Mike Jackson questioned the utility of this scheme suggesting it would create divided loyalties for Scottish soldiers that would be unsustainable in the future. [3] This division would curtail the ability of a united force to take proactive security steps and would slow down military response immeasurably owing to the fact that intervention would have to be verified in two independent parliaments before a joint force could be deployed. Similarly, British military officials would have to make a number of alternative plans for deployment given the uncertainty of Scottish involvement complicating military planning immeasurably.

Therefore it is far more likely that Scotland will engage in a security model similar to Ireland whereby it controls its own security apparatus with minimal military engagement outside of UN peacekeeping operations. [4] This would mean that the UK would have to reorientate its security nexus focusing on increasing troop numbers in England and Wales and expanding RAF bases in these regions to offset the loss of strategic depth that Scotland provides. While the Ministry of Defence does not list the number of recruits for each constituent region of the United Kingdom it does recognised the strategic importance of Scotland for soldiers, training and bases that would be extremely difficult to replace. [5] While there is likely to be an option for Scottish soldiers to join the British Army in a similar vein to citizens in the Republic of Ireland it is unlikely that this will offset the large numbers lost from the Scottish regiments. Indeed, while there has been a rise in the number of recruits from the Republic of Ireland only 85 people joined from 2009-2010 compared to only 10 between 2007-2008. [6] While Scotland does not share the troubled history between Ireland and the UK, and thus Scots will be more willing to join the British forces, it is unlikely that this scheme will significantly account for the loss of Scottish regiments.

Given the economic difficulties that the UK finds itself it may be seen as advantageous to let Scotland leave the Union as the UK could redirect the extra money given to Scotland through the Barnett Formula to bolster the military. However this masks the huge costs involved in reorientating the military in the UK. While Alex Salmond has said he is willing as an ally to allow the UK to use military bases in Scotland it would be difficult to avoid moving a number of key services south of the border. This involves huge costs such as expanding recruitment, developing and expanding military bases and finding remote areas (comparable to the Scottish Highlands) to do training exercises. Moreover, while the UK government may be able to compensate for the reduced number of troops or RAF bases, there are a number of considerations that are vital to address in order to comprehend the full impact of Scottish independence on British security.

Ambiguity over British Nuclear Deterrent

The most pressing concern for British security interests is the implications of Scottish independence for Britain's nuclear deterrent. Given that the UK's entire nuclear arsenal is located in Faslane and Coulport in Western Scotland, the Scottish government's decisions will play an immense role in Britain's nuclear policy. The SNP have been emphatic in their opposition to nuclear weapons being based in Scotland and they would seek to remove them after independence. As the SNP manifesto suggests 'Our opposition to the Trident nuclear missile system and its planned replacement remains firm- there is no place for these weapons in Scotland'. [7]

This creates a number of headaches for British security officials. The break up of nuclear states has happened in the past. Most notably the Ukrainian government handed over its nuclear arsenal to Russia in the aftermath of the collapse of the USSR. However, the stakes are far higher in the case of Scottish independence. Russia was not 100 per cent reliant on the Ukraine for its nuclear protection whereas the UK's nuclear weaponry is based entirely in Scotland. As Professor William Walker suggests 'the disarmament of Scotland would be tantamount to disarmament by the United Kingdom if Trident could not be relocated'. [8] While it is highly unlikely that Scotland will destroy the nuclear arsenal rather than handing it back to the UK, it does put the UK in a difficult position with regards to its loss of control over its own nuclear security.

Similarly relocation creates a number of challenges that are not easily resolvable. The site at Faslane is a deep water estuary that provides quick access to the Atlantic Ocean giving it key strategic importance that is very difficult to find in the rest of the UK. Alongside the natural advantages, the Faslane site has developed over time into a detailed network of support for the nuclear submarine system that would be difficult to replicate. As Professor Hew Strachan suggests 'Whitehall would be deeply alarmed by that prospect [of nuclear relocation] because there is no immediate place to take the deterrent to'. [9]

However a few alternatives sites remain, namely Devonport and Milford Haven, although it would be a logistical nightmare to move to these sites. In Devonport space is at a premium thus it would be extremely difficult to accommodate the submarine fleet and its support network. [10] Alternatively, moving to Milford Haven would be challenging as it would be politically sensitive to move the nuclear site to Wales in the aftermath of Scottish Independence and maintain popular support for this move. The only alternative to this would be to redesign the UK nuclear warheads from submarine fleets towards air attack. However, not only would this be extremely expensive but it may cause the UK a number of difficulties with its obligations to the Non-Proliferation Treaty as this would essentially constitute a new nuclear arsenal rather than a renewal of existing supplies. Thus Scottish independence could have an immeasurable impact on the UK's ability to provide the ultimate deterrent.

Inspiration for Nationalist movements in the UK and Europe

Finally, the effect of Scottish independence on nationalism in the rest of the UK is another key issue that could greatly affect the UK's security. The separation of Scotland from the rest of the United Kingdom is likely to add greater impetus for other nationalist movements in the UK to seek recognition. Most pertinent to the security of the UK is the effect a renewed nationalist spirit would have on the peace process in Northern Ireland. Indeed, Gerry Adams suggested that an independent Scotland would cause 'seismic shifts' for the future of the UK creating lasting concerns about the stability of the region. [11]

The increasingly violent actions of dissident republican groups in Northern Ireland would be in danger of increasing exponentially in the face of an apparently weakened UK. Indeed, the initial tactics of the Provisional IRA were to make Northern Ireland ungovernable both militarily and economically a tactic that is mirrored by republican dissidents. [12] Given the economic and military costs of Scotland's secession, it is extremely likely that the dissident republican groups would seek to expand their operations at the UK's moment of weakness. Renewed violence in Northern Ireland would challenge the ability of the British military and security services to adjust to the new political situation and, importantly, challenge public perception in England and Wales as to the utility of continuing to maintain Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom. Moreover Scotland leaving the Union would also give political credence to Plaid Cymru and Sinn Fein who would argue that the constitutional viability of the UK has been challenged given that the United Kingdom was largely formed by a union between Scotland and England that is now defunct. Thus Scotland's independence would not be the end of the constitutional debate but may cause increased security concerns in Northern Ireland and greater political aspirations in Cardiff.

This also has important implications for European states and governments in France, Spain and across Europe are watching the Scottish situation extremely closely. [13] The democratic secession of Scotland from the United Kingdom could spark a revitalisation of Catalonian, Basque, Corsican nationalism and renewed calls for independence in unstable regions such as Kosovo and Republika Srpska. In fact, it is widely noted that nationalist groups learn from each others success, an excellent example of this is Bastuna's insistence that ETA refrain for violence in order to allow them to expand politically in a similar vein to Sinn Fein since the Good Friday Agreement. [14] Thus Scotland's independence could spark a renewed drive for independence from a number of nationalist groups creating wide ranging security problems across the European continent.

Preventative Measures to Protect British Security

In order to mitigate against the security dilemmas that may arise from Scottish independence the British Government must be prepared for a potential yes vote in the upcoming election. Importantly, the UK must try to protect its nuclear deterrent and negotiate with Scotland to maintain it in Faslane. There are a number of ways to do this, firstly, the UK may need to consider playing hard during the negotiation period, for example trading Faslane for the UK in exchange for not blocking Scotland's entry into the European Union. Scotland's interest in removing the nuclear threat is far outweighed by its need for membership within to the European Union and thus is likely to accept these conditions. Such a trade would be an exceptionally useful tool to maintain the UK's security interests.

Furthermore, the UK should extend the negotiation process over a number of years. This would allow the UK to mitigate against sensationalist coverage of Scottish independence that a swift move to independence would create. It would also dissuade other inspiring nationalist groups from thinking that the move to independence is extremely easy and therefore desirable. Also a long period of negotiation would allow the UK to analyse the effect of Scottish independence on levels of nationalism in Northern Ireland and Wales and to plan for the military dilemmas that could arise. It would also allow the UK time to reconfigure its military personnel and weaponry to take into consideration the losses caused by Scotland's exit. Overall, the UK has to take a pragmatic approach to Scottish independence to ensure the stability and long term future of the United Kingdom.

Finally, it is important to put these challenges in a wider perspective of security for the UK. While Scotland leaving the Union would cause a number of headaches for the UK, it is likely that the UK would remain relatively secure from conventional military attacks for the conceivable future. The relationship between Scotland and the rest of the UK would be complementary, with Scotland likely to maintain close links both politically and militarily with its old neighbour. Similarly the security that NATO and the American nuclear umbrella provide would ward against conventional military attacks from all but the most suicidal regimes. Thus Scottish independence does not create a crisis for the domestic security of the United Kingdom. Rather it raises a number of challenges that will have to be foreseen in order to maintain the full effectiveness of the UK's security network. Thus Scottish independence is not something to dread or fear but rather it is something that the UK needs to fully understand in order to plan adequately for the future.


[1] Stephen Kendrick and David McCrone 'Politics in a Cold Climate: The Conservative Decline in Scotland'  Political Studies, (Vol. 37, No. 4, 1989) pp. 589-603

[2] Tom Peterkin, 'SNP lowers sights to 'independence-lite' 14 May 2011,

[3] Simon Johnson, 'Sir Mike Jackson tells Alex Salmond: British Soldiers have only one master', The Telegraph, 16 May 2011

[4] BBC News 'A Scottish Divorce...Who gets the Kids?', BBC News, 6 December 2007, accessed 24 May 2011

[5] Ministry of Defence 'Defence in Scotland', 10 January 2011, , accessed 25 May 2011

[6] Heather McGarrigle 'British Army sees more Irish recruits', Belfast Telegraph, 6 December 2010

[7] SNP Party Manifesto A Scottish Government Working for Scotland, (Edinburgh, 2011), accessed 24 May 2011

[8] Malcolm Chalmers and William Walker   'The United Kingdom, Nuclear Weapons and the Scottish Question' The Non-Proliferation Review, (Spring 2002), pp. 1-15

[9] BBC News 'A Scottish Divorce...Who gets the Kids?', BBC News 6 December 2007, accessed 24 May 2011

[10] Jeremy Stocker 'Future Nuclear Capability' Adelphi Series (Vol. 46, No. 386, 2006) pp. 69-79

[11] Paul Ainsworth 'Adams Coy on the Ministries that Sinn Fein Want', Belfast Media 16 May 2011

[12]  Brendan O'Brien The Long War: The IRA and Sinn Fein, (New York, Syracuse University Press, 1999)

[13] Nick Amies 'Europe's Nationalists Watch Scottish Elections with Interest' Deutsche Welle, 3 May 2007

[14] Ignacio Sanchez-Cuenca 'The Dynamics of Nationalist Terrorism: ETA and the IRA', Terrorism and Political Violence, (Vol. 19, No. 3, 2007) pp. 289-306


The views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.

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