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June 17, 2012 7:06 pm
The Scottish National party is poised to drop its opposition to Scotland joining Nato as it tries to build a strategy for national security in the event of independence from Britain.
The SNP leadership has moved its position after talks with Denmark and Norway, two fellow-northern European nations which share the party’s antipathy to nuclear weapons but are nonetheless part of Nato, according to people familiar with the situation.
The decision to back Nato membership – which would reverse 30 years of SNP opposition to the transatlantic military alliance – is expected to be announced at the party conference in October.
It reflects an intensifying effort within the party leadership to address some of the thorniest questions over Scotland’s future role in the world as the party gears up for a referendum on independence in 2014.
On national security, a strategy is emerging to align Scotland with its North Sea neighbours of Denmark and Norway, whose social democratic political traditions are combined with a robust approach to defence.
“A lot of consideration has been given to the expectations of our northern European neighbours and the way we work together,” said one SNP official, noting that the region was taking on more importance as a gateway to the resource-rich Arctic.
“The Arctic and the high north are the key drivers to understanding our geostrategic role and there is a very strong focus on maritime responsibility,” the official added.
Nato membership is among a range of awkward security questions facing the SNP as it develops its plan for independence. Arguably the most difficult issue is the SNP’s staunch opposition to nuclear weapons given that the UK’s submarine-based Trident nuclear deterrent is based at the Scottish ports of Faslane and Coulport.
The SNP-led Scottish government signalled support on Sunday for a report from the Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament which said all nuclear weapons could be removed from the country within two years of independence.
“We are firmly committed to the earliest possible withdrawal of Trident from Scotland,” the Scottish government said.
However, senior SNP officials said the party would take a pragmatic approach. Some experts have said moving Trident could take up to 20 years.
Nick Harvey, armed forces minister, told the Commons Scottish affairs committee last week that moving Trident would be “very, very challenging” and “take a very long time to complete and cost a gargantuan amount”.
The defence ministry refused to take account of the potential costs of moving Trident – or other costs associated with Scottish independence – in its budget and strategic review. Justifying its position, the MoD said it was confident Scots “will continue to support the union in any referendum”.
Another likely area of serious disagreement would be the size of any military inheritance which Scotland could claim.
The UK armed forces are a highly integrated and very sophisticated fighting force. The idea that you can sort of break off a little bit, like a square on a chocolate bar and that would be the bit that went north of the border, is frankly laughable
- Philip Hammond, secretary of state for defence
Angus Robertson, the SNP defence spokesman in Westminister, argues that Scotland’s troop numbers have been disproportionately hit by government cuts, with nearly 30 per cent of troops based in Scotland eliminated, compared with 11 per cent elsewhere. Thus the SNP argues any baseline for negotiation should be well above the 11,000 service personnel based in Scotland at the moment.
In addition to troops and bases, there would also be the more complicated task of splitting the far-flung military support network, from helicopters and training academies to procurement experts and intelligence gatherers.
Philip Hammond, secretary of state for defence, said: “The UK armed forces are a highly integrated and very sophisticated fighting force. The idea that you can sort of break off a little bit, like a square on a chocolate bar and that would be the bit that went north of the border, is frankly laughable.”
Analysts argue that Scotland would not be able to afford the defence budgets of the larger economies of Norway and Denmark, nor be able to rely on their history of conscription and well-established base of military equipment from frigates to jet fighters.
Matthew Bell and Alexander von Rosenbach of IHS Jane’s, the analyst, suggests that Ireland, Belgium, and New Zealand would be more relevant templates.
Mr Robertson said Scottish taxpayers contribute an annual £3.3bn to UK defence, of which little more than £2bn was being spent in Scotland.
“Our northern European neighbours all maintain appropriate military capabilities including fast jets, ocean going vessels and highly trained personnel. There is no question that Scotland could easily match those capabilities,” he said.
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