by Jack Ferguson
The papers today are again full of unionists trying to sell Britain on the basis of its war machine.
It’s been one of the consistent themes ejected from the various orifices of the unholy anti-independence alliance: statehood for Scotland means it’s just a matter of time before the hordes of who-knows-where will overrun us and take advantage of our lack of Trident or aircraft carriers.
“We should not give any of that away, even for a comparative short period of time easily, because it’s an extremely risky thing to do,” says Labour peer Lord Browne, highlighting that Scotland’s unknown enemies are waiting like Velociraptors for the slightest sign of weakness.
Quite where the assault will come from nobody knows. North Korea? Russia? The Vikings? The point is that the only reason this isn’t happening right now is because the UK spends the fourth largest military budget on Earth.
The latest attempt to spread this idea comes from a conference of the Royal United Services Institute, a pro-military think tank. At it Malcolm Rifkind, a Tory who likes to play with toy soldiers, attacked the SNP’s plan for a 15,000 strong Scottish defence force as “back of the envelope stuff”. His reasoning for this is that the numbers committed to actually useful stuff like medical care and intelligence mean Scotland would only have 5000 combat troops able to do actual killings.
“Is that something we should enthusiastically look forward to as being something that would enhance Scotland’s position in the world?” he asks.
Scotland has a long tradition of militarism, and it’s no surprise that the Better Together Tories want to tap into the deep psychological well of violence, masculinity and misplaced pride that the idea of Scotland as a warlike nation evokes in many people. In doing so, they are at least being partly honest, in that they cut to the chase of what Britain is all about.
How it all got started
Scotland originally joined the union with England because the rich tobacco and slave merchants of Glasgow wanted access to more colonies. There had already been a comically disastrous attempt to set up a Scottish empire that failed, and so the ruling classes of Scotland allied with those of England to combine forces and access the areas of the world England had already taken by violent force from the peoples that lived there (in the Caribbean, North America and then later together Asia, Africa and Australia.)
Britain rose to be the global superpower that controlled most of the planet. In the 20th century, finally exhausted by the effort of fighting two massive planet wide conflicts, it relinquished the top spot to America. However, Britain remains one of the world’s main imperial powers. There’s still colonies dotted around the oceans, many of which, like the Cayman Islands, are key sites in the flow of money around the world that allow the rich to avoid paying tax and keep financial markets outside of regulation. Half of all global financial transactions still flow through London because of its place at the centre of this network of imperial island money launderers. Our oil companies are major players in the world’s energy networks and resource wars.
And crucially, as already mentioned, we are the world’s 4th largest military power, with nuclear submarines and everything. This military is increasingly frequently being deployed around the planet to take part in resource wars for the dwindling supplies of energy and other key materials. All the world’s great military powers want to reserve these for themselves in the oncoming era of ecological collapse. Britain in particular of course also has a particular predisposition to getting involved in countries it once directly ruled (or tried to) like Iraq and Afghanistan.
These two things sum up the purpose of Britain for those that rule it – financial power, forcing the rest of the world into our debt. For those that don’t like it or stand in their way, we’ve got war. It may sound simplistic and stark, but the evidence is there in the dirty wars that have been fought and the countries looted. It is what the pro-British politicians mean when they say we have to be able to protect our interests around the world. One Better Together theme has been how an independent Scotland wouldn’t be able to build aircraft carriers. But what use are aircraft carriers for defending our landmass? They’re useful for one thing only – ferrying aircraft to other people’s countries to bomb them into submission.
“Our interests” is a euphemism that represents the third world remaining a place where we extract things we need and keep the proceeds, be that energy, natural resources or human beings. Have you ever wondered why all the food in our supermarkets grows in Third World plantations and your clothes were made by near slaves in Asia? Why global supply chains coalesce in Europe and North America where we consume the vast majority of the world’s resources while the rest of our species looks on in hunger? To be able to maintain this takes an amassing of power and force, which is what the union between Scotland and England was originally about.
Privilege is always blinding, and its hard for those of us born in the UK to see the huge privileges that have been accumulated for us through centuries of murder and conquest by our ancestors. The further up the class hierarchy you go there more there are. But to give just one small example – the production of tea for British and European markets in the 19th century resulted in 35 million deaths around the world*. Everything about our daily lives and the products we consume comes to us across a sea of imperial blood. The unionists want to continue that equation, and believe only Britain is powerful enough to maintain our privileges. Samir Amin calls the unequal exchange that we benefit from “imperial rent”.
This is even true of Labour and the supposed “left” of the unionist movement. They don’t believe that an independent Scotland is big enough to deliver social justice. The unexamined assumption is that only Britain, with its imperial wealth and ability to extract from the rest of the planet, can bring home enough bacon for their vision of a left wing Labour government. Imperial rent gives a fantastic economic advantage to the countries that collect it, and among other things this funded a welfare state in this country without requiring the rich to give up too much.
As the planet warms, and oil supplies dwindle, resource conflicts in critical areas of the world look set to become the norm. The world’s great empires know this, and are already fighting for control of the water supplies and other critical means of maintaining control over areas of the world. If Scotland votes No next year, you can look forward to decades of endless war stretching out as Britain’s imperial outlook drags it into more and more fights over the resource crumbs. This should also be coupled with the fact that Britain’s greatest imperial ally, the US, is a declining hegemon – that is, it used to be the global power, but now its power is waning. Dying empires lash out more, and as part of Britain that means us too.
It’s easy to see why this is the vision of the City of London and the Royal United Servcies Insitute. But are the interests that we’re talking about here really the interests of the Scottish people?
The real problem
Remaining tied to British imperial policy means that Scotland will continue to fight in oil wars instead of devoting those resources to building a post-carbon economy and reindustrialising the country through renewable energy. For a long time Britain has oriented itself imperially to the south and east. But if we were to talk seriously about threats to our security, there is no country at all that poses a serious threat to Scotland. The real thing to fear is obvious – for everyone in the world the basis of survival is beginning to collapse because of climate change.
One of the most immediate security consequences of this for Scotland is the opening up of the Arctic. The world’s Arctic powers are already in a rush to militarise the top of the planet, as for the first time in human history the seas there become ice free and navigable. In a spectacular display of not-getting-the-point, the energy monopolies are already salivating at the prospect of digging out the oil reserves this uncovers. But perhaps even more importantly for Scotland, it opens up the prospect of being at the end of the North East Passage – the completely new, months shorter shipping route between Asia and Europe, estimated to be worth billions in time saving by sending cargo round the north of Russia.
There is a proposal to build a massive floating container port in Orkney that would serve as a hub for the distribution of goods throughout Europe, putting the north of Scotland as a major node in a key global strategic supply chain.
All this points to the need for the Scottish parliament to be able to think rationally about the security of our country and where our interests need to be defended, rather than having these decisions being made for us in Westminster and Washington, with the only job left for us is as canon fodder.
Austerity war machine
If we were to decide that our interests lie in the North, and the defence of our seas and coastlines, we could reasonably ask how much protection the wonders of Her Majesty’s armed forces give us?
The SNP argue that under their plans there would actually be more soldiers and defence units in Scotland than there would be as part of Britain. This is because, despite the rhetoric, the UK austerity drive is meaning, among other things, scaling back the military presence in Scotland. With the closure of Leuchars and Kinloss being closed as air bases, bases and barracks around Edinburgh being junked, and only a fraction of troops being brought back from Germany being stationed in Scotland.
Defence cuts already mean that there are no surveillance aircraft watching the seas off Scotland, meaning a Russian naval battlegroup got 25 miles off the coast of Moray before anyone knew anything about it. What was the only thing the Royal Navy could do to respond? Send a ship up on double time to check it out. From Portsmouth. In England.
The SNP argue that Scottish taxpayers put £3.3 billion into the British defence budget, but only about £1.5 billion actually gets spent by the MoD in Scotland. Bear in mind most of that is for Faslane, and isn’t much use to anyone outside of that area. Indeed, if you look at defence spending to population, you begin to see a picture that is shockingly familiar: defence spending, and the jobs and economic advantages they bring to an area, are concentrated in the south of England. The British government spends around £302 per person defending Scotland. For the southwest of England the figure is £1,244.
This reflects the reality behind all the fantasies of wars on British soil that are unlikely ever to happen again (this side of Children of Men/The Road that is). Military bases means government spending, jobs, and local businesses for the military people with money. In the US, military bases are spread out across the face of the continent in plenty of places that are of no strategic value to the American military. The reason is that defence spending is government money that can be doled out politically to places you want to reward and taken away from areas they want to punish.
In that light, it’s kind of interesting that the Tories have concentrated more and more of the military in southern England, with their announcement that only 600 troops returning from Germany will be stationed in Scotland, or that the remaining airbase at Lossiemouth won’t be getting new planes (insread they’ye going to Norfolk).
One of the many aspects of the bastardry of our current lot of Tories has been their blatant redistribution of wealth in the form of government spending from the north (where nobody votes for them) to their heartlands in southern England. Government housing policy to support expensive new builds by private developers means money is funnelled to developing the south of England and away from the Northern English housing crisis. Cuts to welfare and public spending put more people out of work and hit incomes harder in the north. Government subsidy to banking is mainly a subsidy to the southeast of England, and that is as colossal as the bank bailouts.
Could it be possible that the Tories have already conceded the possibility of losing the referendum? Despite all their warlike talk, could it be that they are asset stripping the Scottish bases, and removing as many military assets as possible from Scotland, while they are still in control of the situation? Under such plans, Scotland will be left as little more than a nuclear base/dumping ground. Lots of areas in southern England are up for having soldiers spend money in their pubs. Not many areas anywhere are wild about being a nuclear target on giant maps on the walls of the Pentagon and Kremlin.
The SNP have tried to capitalise on this favouritism with their claims that they will in fact add a billion to defence spending in Scotland, taking it to £2.5 billion. Their defence guy, Angus Robertson, compares this to Norway and Denmark, which have helicopters, surveillance aircraft and amphibious forces patrolling their seas, unlike Scotland as protected by Britain with ships in England and the Persian Gulf.
Paying for true security
It definitely seems pretty obvious that Scotland’s main interests are in keeping an eye on the north sea, and the suddenly opened up warming northern oceans. Britain obviously does a pretty crappy job of this, and is completely off the ball when it comes to the future of the Arctic. The SNP government understands this a lot better, and are actively thinking about the realities of the coming decades.
But is increased military spending in an independent Scotland really something to be celebrated? Although they make some good points, the SNP’s vision of an independent Scottish defence force are contradictory and weak. Controversially, the SNP recently reversed their longstanding opposition to NATO, the nuclear alliance that America uses to control its European allies. Many SNP members left, correctly pointing the incompatibility of scrapping nuclear weapons with being part of a nuclear alliance.
Independence is an opportunity to go radically beyond the politics of war and debt. £3.3 billion of Scottish tax payers money is wasted each year in a world where there are no significant military threats to Scotland. The threats to the security of the Scottish people aren’t in North Korea. To protect our security and prevent violence, we urgently need to build hundreds of thousands of new homes. We need to prepare for the onslaught of climate unpredictability, and transform our economy and energy networks so they no longer run on dead carbon. In the face of the massive multiple crises facing Scotland and the rest of the world, £2.5 billion on the military is still too high a price tag.
The SNP’s plans are aimed at those who are scared by British propaganda. The fear promoted in tales of Scottish defencelessness comes at the end of over a decade of relentless war propaganda, from the manipulated news media to Jack Bauer. But militarist fantasies should not be allowed to blind us from the very real dangers we need to tackle.
Fortunately, the pro-independence left, in its various forms, has already begun to talk very broadly about the need for Scotland to radically cut defence spending in favour of more socially useful things. The main piece of action that came out of the Radical Independence Conference was a weekend of action against Trident, re-affirming the role of nuclear weapons in uniting opposition to Britain. Scottish CND has formally voted to support independence as the most realistic way of scrapping nuclear weapons. In the Scottish Parliament, the Green and independent MSPs, who are all also pro-independence, wrote to the Scottish government arguing:
“The UK commits £39 billion of public money each year to military expenditure whilst vital public services face drastic spending cuts. It is our firm belief that this is the wrong choice. Our public resources should be focused on challenging society’s inequalities, improving people’s health and well-being, and helping create an environmentally-sustainable society, and we hope you share that view.
“Independence will give Scotland a chance to do things differently but the SNP’s plan to commit £2.5 billion to an annual defence and security budget as part of Nato completely undermines this opportunity. Clearly there is a role for national defence but this does not require membership of a cold war nuclear alliance and a budget running into billions of pounds.”
This is the beginning of a campaign that must carry beyond the referendum and into the process of writing the Scottish constitution. The peace movement in Scotland has decades of experience and influence. Now we must begin to openly talk about the fantastic opportunity that the referendum and what comes after presents: to save huge amounts of the wasted military budget, and in the process make Scotland an international centre for peace making. Starting with unilateral nuclear disarmament, the new Scottish state can develop on a new model. Our defence forces need to be trained in responding to the ever more frequent climate disasters, rather than securing the oil that ensures more of them happen.
There’s already been all types of detailed work been done on this by organisations like Scottish CND and Scotland’s 4 Peace. There are detailed plans which must be fleshed out and updated as serious policy proposals for after the referendum. Among other things, they allow us to plan a just transition for the workers around Faslane, Leuchars and elsewhere, where the money spent on weapons can instead be spent on redeveloping local areas and redeploying skilled jobs into renewable energy and other things that we actually need. In fact, defence spending is a ridiculously inefficient way to create knock on jobs. The money wasted on Trident is enough to give everyone in Scotland a job at the living wage just to do nothing.
Every empire eventually falls. It isn’t impossible to exploit violence forever. In the coming environment, Britain won’t be able to survive on imperial rent and plunder any more. Dismantling the war machine in Scotland is part of recognising that we need to be part of the cooperative development being pioneered internationally in Latin America, and that gradually we can undo the legacy of centuries during which we extracted what we wanted from the rest of the planet by force.
And what will some future Schumpeter say when writing the history of the UK? Perhaps something like this: “There was no corner of the known world where some interest was not alleged to be in danger or under actual attack.”
Don’t agree with the defence conclusions. Why shouldn’t Scotland also have a strong (and non-interventionist) military?
Because we don’t need it? What’s the point in a 2 and a half billion Scottish military if we don’t plan on getting involved in other people’s countries? Personally I’d be for putting neutrality in the constitution, like in Ireland. The Irish republic spends about a billion less on its national defence than what the SNP plan to.
Unless you plan to use it in a war, a strong military is just a waste of money that we should be devoting to social welfare, and promoting peaceful solutions to conflicts.