A popular meme employed to counter the idea of Scottish independence is that Scotland is a subsidy junky, relying on preferential funding from Westminster to allow its peoples a modern standard of living. On a simple analysis this is grounded in fact. Public spending per head of population is about 16% higher in Scotland than in England, with the greater part of public funding in Scotland deriving from Westminster via the Barnett Formula. This short text is not to per se examine whether Scotland is actually poor, or to examine the reasons for the need for higher per capita spending, but rather to examine the question, if Scotland is a drain on the Westminster purse, why are all UK governments are so keen to hold onto it? If true, from a business perspective Scotland would be a loss making subsidiary of UK PLC and when times get hard you divest of loss-making parts of the business- surely? However, whenever Scotland even vaguely moots the possibility of its independence, Westminster huffs and puffs and tells it not to be so silly.
So why is there so much resistance to Scottish independence? Recent opinion polls tell us that while hard-core little Englander Brexiteers would happily ditch Northern Ireland and Scotland to achieve their splendid isolation, the majority of the British peoples enjoy a wide ancestry from all parts of the British Isles and thus have a strong emotional attachment to the concept of a United Kingdom, irrespective of where they now live. Writing as an Anglo-Scot with a leavening of Welsh and Irish ancestry, I have much sympathy for this position. However, this sentiment falls apart under any scrutiny. In my home city of Glasgow, large numbers of friends and acquaintances claim an Irish granny and have fond memories of childhood visits. The fact of having to cross a notional national border for these visits has made no odds to these family ties and if anything arguably enhances the sense of cultural roots. Scotland as a separate nation would offer no impediment to visitors from other parts of the British Isles, or indeed anyone from within the European Union. Little or nothing would change in terms of family connection across the UK in an independent Scotland.
Governments, however, are not by and large sentimental about family ties as exemplified by the ever increasing difficulty of gaining residency rights for spouses and other family members who originate from outwith the EU. Governments tend to have hard-nosed objectives and, as indicated above, if England was financially better off unencumbered by the loss making appendage of Scotland, why does it so tenaciously seek to retain it? The answer lies in the simple fact of geography and the geographical implications of Scotland to the defence of the English realm, as well as the wider aspect of Westminster’s desire to play a world role through permanent membership of the UN Security Council.
Scotland, its Geography, Conventional Military Weapons and Nuclear Weapons
Scotland lies to the north of England, that we all know, but that knowledge hides Scotland’s true geographic position, best seen on a globe or a map projection which emphasises the sub-Arctic region. Scotland lies on one side of what is sometimes known as the Greenland-Iceland-UK (GIUK) gap, the seaway through which the Russian navy and its nuclear submarines must pass in their route out of their Murmansk base and into the Atlantic. Scotland is a key location for monitoring this traffic.
Scotland’s geography is also critical to the UK military forces in that it offers large areas of sparsely populated highlands which form excellent training grounds for military air pilots, terrain that is very limited in England. Its hilltops and islands are excellent sites for numerous radars and other listening posts. Scotland also has its long, crenulated coastline where sea lochs provide deep water anchorages for military vessels and submarines with adjacent fuel dumps buried into the adjoining hillsides. Inshore waters provide areas for submarine training, and gunnery, missile and torpedo test ranges, all of these predicated on the fact that the areas have relatively low populations to inconvenience. These would be very hard to replicate on English territory and thus, without access to such strategic facilities, an English military would feel at a significant disadvantage compared to their current situation. This military perspective drives the Westminster panic at the thought of losing Scotland as a separate nation.
As well as the physical realities of potentially losing the Scottish military facilities, Westminster has a fear that anything that weakened its nuclear capability would imperil its permanent seat on the UN Security Council. Other nations argue similar claims to such a position, but the UK’s ownership of nuclear weapons gives it bragging rights that enable it to keep its toe hold and hence international prestige. Britain’s nuclear weapons arsenal is not wholly based in Scotland but loss of access to the deep water berthing facilities of Scotland would seriously degrade the ability of an independent England to operate a submarine-based nuclear strike force.
In conclusion, forget the economic arguments that Scotland is too poor to be independent, ignore the spurious fears of dividing families across international boundaries. Focus on the fact that Scotland is the primest of prime military real-estate in NW Europe. Now what government would want to give that up? Goodness me, they might even come up with spurious arguments for its retention.