Nay or Yay to NATO

Whether an independent Scotland should be a member of NATO has been the subject of vigorous debate over many years. Until recently the policy of the SNP, the party of government in Scotland since 2007, was that it would withdraw from NATO upon independence. This policy seems to have been based almost entirely on the premise that NATO is a “nuclear led alliance”, and more specifically on the fact that the Alliance has not eschewed the principle of first strike.

The SNP policy changed dramatically in the autumn of 2012 when, after vigorous and oftentimes passionate debate, the party agreed that, on independence, Scotland would remain within NATO but press for the removal of nuclear weapons from its soil – in other words, demand the removal of Trident missile carrying submarines from Faslane on the Clyde. Subsequently, First Minister Alex Salmond suggested that Scotland would have a written constitution in which its nuclear weapons free status would be enshrined.

The revised NATO policy has been roundly criticised from all quarters; from within the party as a craven abandonment of long held principles in shameless pursuit of votes for independence; and from outwith the party for being intellectually incoherent – how can you join a defensive military alliance which has as one of its tenets the utility of nuclear weaponry and then campaign to get rid of them?

The debate rages on and looks like continuing unabated right up to referendum day on 18th September 2014 and beyond. So, what are the main issues relating to Scotland being part of NATO, and what are the perceived advantages and disadvantages?

The most immediate advantage, and probably the biggest one of all, is that membership of NATO would make Scotland part of what is arguably the most successful defensive military alliance ever, a comforting thought for a small, fledgling independent nation starting to establish its place in the world order. The central tenet of NATO, contained in Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, is usually described in the vernacular as “an attack upon one will be regarded as an attack upon all”. This means quite simply that an independent Scotland, if threatened militarily, would never have to stand alone.

More important, of course, is that the North Atlantic Treaty ties the USA to the defence of Europe. Most small nations would be only too pleased to have the world’s policeman on their side and so it should be with Scotland, especially as it reinforces the historical and cultural ties it has with North America. Having the USA as a big brother in the international playground is not to be sniffed at, quite the opposite.

Being part of NATO would also give Scotland a recognised place and voice in the international community, as with membership of the EU perhaps, and would allow it to play its part in the diplomacy and decisions that NATO as a whole agrees. In other words, NATO membership brings with it influence over external events.

A further important benefit of NATO membership would be that it would allow Scotland to be smart in its foreign and defence policy decisions. With the best will in the world, it is most unlikely that the armed forces of an independent Scotland would be a miniature version of the UK’s. Having a navy, army and air force with the full spectrum capabilities of the Royal Navy, Royal Air Force, and British Army would be well beyond the resources of a small country of 5.2 million souls. In any case, the foreign and defence policies of Scotland would be regional, not global. Accordingly, much of the high end UK military inventory – aircraft carriers, submarines, fast jets, tanks, heavy artillery, attack helicopters etc – would be inappropriate.

However, being within NATO would mean that many, if not most, of those high end capabilities would be covered by our allies, leaving Scotland to choose to specialise in whatever capabilities it might do best, or consider to be most useful both to itself and its allies. For example, the Scottish Government might decide, say, that its most effective contribution might be to set up the most well equipped, well trained, and professionally competent medical field hospitals and mobile surgical units to be found anywhere in the world. These would be at a premium for coalition and alliance based operations and fit in very well with current Scottish politico-military thinking.

Against such a background you might ask what’s not to like? Well there are a couple of disadvantages, inevitably. Most immediately, for the party of government, the SNP, it has been a hard sell. Notwithstanding the fact that the party hierarchy had long recognised that their previous policy stance, which was to negotiate withdrawal from NATO on achieving independence, was intellectually misguided and potentially an electoral liability, when the question was put to party members it was touch and go.

The party’s defence spokesman, Angus Robertson, was booed when he spoke at conference. It took the combined efforts of the SNP’s upper echelons to force the change through against stiff grassroots opposition. And almost immediately thereafter two of the party’s MSPs resigned the whip in the Holyrood Parliament.

What sugared the pill for some party activists was the concomitant commitment to demand the removal of nuclear weaponry from Scottish territory, reinforced by the aforementioned commitment to have the pledge enshrined in a written Scottish constitution. But the SNP position remains contradictory and difficult for many within its ranks. Tellingly, the party has no timeframe for withdrawal of nuclear weapons for Scotland, and the issue remains unreconciled.

On top of this we have to consider what Scotland would have to contribute; NATO does not welcome countries which are looking for a “free ride”, and the commitment is not one sided. Scotland would have to give to enable it to take, and of course Article 5 demands that it would be obliged to support any other member which came under attack. In other words, membership of the Alliance might mean that Scotland could be become involved in conflicts which it would otherwise be able to choose to avoid.

A further cautionary note comes via discussions at a recent Ditchley Foundation conference held between 6-8 June this year on “The future of Scotland: international implications and comparisons” and which I attended. During the conference it became quite clear that Scottish membership of NATO “was not inevitable”, and that some prominent NATO members would wish some answers on the following issues before supporting Scotland’s accession; they would seek reassurance on the future of Trident, they would need to know that Scotland would not deny access to its ports to nuclear powered (and possibly nuclear armed) ships, and they would want to know where Scotland stands on the future of NATO as a global or European organisation. It was also clear that other NATO members would expect Scotland to spend at least two per cent of its GDP on defence, well above the figure anticipated by the SNP and other commentators, including myself.

It was further clearly stated that “The USA and many other countries would wish to look at the stance of the first post-independence Scottish Government, and if that stance is anti nuclear then the accession period for Scotland [into NATO] might stretch for years.”

“In the run up to the [Scottish] independence referendum, no NATO country will take a formal position on the issue. But no single country in NATO will wish to see Scotland as an independent country. The UK is by some measure the second strongest member of NATO, and NATO would be weakened by the secession of Scotland from the UK.”

So there you have it. In layman’s terms, should an independent Scotland continue to espouse the anti nuclear agenda then its accession to NATO would most likely be blocked or delayed.

Clearly, then, despite assurances to the contrary from the SNP, an independent Scotland’s membership of NATO is far from a done deal. It would require a consensus vote, and all members would have to agree. This warning shot across the SNP’s bows needs to be heeded.

Despite all of this, it seems pretty obvious to most objective observers that the advantages of an independent Scotland being a member of NATO far outweigh the disadvantages. But membership comes at a cost, as with the privileges come the responsibilities. Of the former, the Article 5 commitment is perhaps the most important, guaranteeing as it does that Scotland would not stand alone if ever attacked, and specifically bringing it under the US umbrella.

In return Scotland would be expected to contribute at the appropriate level, and current SNP and other commentators’ models for Scottish defence have budgets well below the two per cent of GDP to which NATO nations should aspire.

Finally, an independent Scottish Government, if formed by the SNP, will need to sort out its ambivalent position on nuclear weapons. Should the commitment remain to remove them from Scottish soil at the earliest opportunity, the corollary is likely to be that Scotland’s accession to NATO might stretch out for many years – or possibly not happen at all.

Stuart Crawford is a defence commentator and former army officer.