Security in an independent Scotland

Dr. Andrew Neal, University of Edinburgh

Dr. Andrew Neal, University of Edinburgh

In this piece, Dr. Andrew Neal argues that security is about the perception of threats, rendering an objective assessment of Scotland’s prospects for security impossible. However, he notes that an independent Scotland may emulate the UK’s expansive approach to secruity threats and risks or adopt a narrower approach. 

An objective analysis of the prospective security situation of an independent Scotland is impossible. There is no objective or settled meaning to the term ‘security’, even in the current governmental and constitutional arrangements of the UK. It is thus not possible to simply produce an objective and comparative list of ‘threats’ to the UK and an independent Scotland. The real question is how governments perceive threats and what they attempt to do about them. The question is therefore not whether an independent Scotland would face different threats to the rest of the UK, but how the government of an independent Scotland would perceive threats and what it would attempt to do about them.

At present, the UK government does not have a coherent approach to ‘security’, and there is no reason to think that an independent Scottish government would be any different. Governments of modern states are sprawling, complex beasts. Getting them to do anything in a coherent, unified way is extremely difficult, especially on issues that span different parts of government, maybe even all parts of government.

Even in the constitutional status quo, it is not clear that current Scottish arrangements provide adequate scrutiny and oversight of every aspect of ‘security’ that could affect Scotland.

There are currently two interpretations of ‘security’ in play within the UK government: the narrow and the broad. The narrow interpretation adopts a traditional understanding of security, in which threats are foreign, military, and state-based. The corresponding parts of government in the Foreign Office, the Ministry of Defence and 10 Downing Street deal with those threats. The National Security Council chaired by the Prime Minister has largely focused on traditional foreign and defence issues, such as the Libyan intervention.

At the same, an alternative broad interpretation of security is being developed elsewhere in the UK government. The UK government’s counter-terrorism strategy document (CONTEST) lists 29 departments and agencies as playing a role in this strategy. The most recent version of the National Security Strategy (NSS) goes further by shifting from ‘security’ to an encompassing list of ‘risks’. These stretch from international terrorism and overseas military crises to border transgressions by illegal immigrants and disruptions to fuel and food supplies. The manifestation of this broad interpretation of security is that security is proliferating across all areas of government, far beyond the traditional narrow remit of foreign and defence policy.

Much hinges on the extent to which an independent Scotland would truly be an ‘independent’ state.

The conclusion we must draw is that there is no single meaning of security in the UK. The reality is that disparate parts of the government perceive ‘threats’ and ‘risks’ differently and develop policies to deal with them in a piecemeal fashion. Whether this is good or bad depends on ones’ view on the relative dangers of security threats on the one hand, or a unified security state on the other.

Would it be different in an independent Scotland? The Scottish government might not perceive threats and risks in the same way. Given the haphazard nature of threat perception in the UK, there is no reason to think that Scotland would independently come up with same list of threats and risks. Scottish politics has been less hostile to immigrants than Westminster politics. The Scottish government might not see immigration as part of the bundle of risks specified in the NSS that includes terrorism, organised crime and smuggling.

My current research on parliamentary security politics at Westminster analyzes this unsettled and changing state of security affairs. The uneven creep of ‘security’ across different areas of government is reflected in a larger number of parliamentary committees handling security issues. Half a dozen now do so regularly (Intelligence and Security, Home Affairs, Foreign Affairs, Defence, Joint Committee on Human Rights, Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy). At least half a dozen more discuss security questions on a less frequent basis (e.g. Lords Committee on the Constitution, Energy, Public Accounts, Energy and Climate Change, Science and Technology, Health). If we were to take the comprehensive list of risks in the NSS seriously, we could argue that every part of government and parliament will find itself dealing with security issues at some point.

Whatever ‘security’ is, it already reaches far beyond the ‘reserved areas of government’ that Holyrood currently leaves to Westminster (e.g. foreign affairs, defence, counter-terrorism). The proliferation of ‘security’ across Westminster has in no way been mirrored in Holyrood. Even in the constitutional status quo, it is not clear that current Scottish arrangements provide adequate scrutiny and oversight of every aspect of ‘security’ that could affect Scotland. Without knowing which new ministries and parliamentary committees an independent Scotland would create, it is difficult to know how ‘security’ would play out in the new constitutional context.

And what of a Scottish House of Lords or equivalent? The House of Lords has often put a brake on the excesses of security politics at Westminster, such as extended pre-charge detention for terrorist suspects. In large part this is thanks to the many lawyers and a scattering of former security officials in its ranks. We do not even know if an independent Scotland would have an upper house of parliament, but we can be certain that it would not be an unelected body of experts and political appointees like the Lords and so would probably not have the same legal and security expertise.

Much hinges on the extent to which an independent Scotland would truly be an ‘independent’ state. If it does not free itself from the current security model at Westminster, we can expect security to be a lengthening rope pulled in several different directions at once. If it does not depart radically from the current Holyrood model, we can expect a continuing lack of scrutiny and oversight. The question of security in an independent Scotland is not a question of what objective threats it would face. It is a constitutional question. The character of security in a modern state is a product of its constitutional arrangements. Leadership, officialdom, parliament; these all shape ‘security’ in different, conflicting ways. Sometimes security shapes them.

Dr Andrew Neal is a Lecturer at the School of Social and Political Science at the University of Edinburgh. He blogs at securitypolitics and tweets @andrewwneal

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