Foreign and Defence Policy: Early reflections

I can hear the cries of anguish from some quarters because the SNP has made a very detailed submission to the UK government’s “Integrated Review” into the UK’s Defence and Foreign Policy strategy. Shouldn’t we be devoting all our energies to fighting for independence rather than getting compromised by playing Westminster’s games? This is a legitimate question, but my response will disappoint many, as I welcome very much the willingness to think and write about such issues, even if it is written in a context of the UK and devolution, rather than independence. We need to think about every policy area in preparation for independence, and even in contentious areas such as defence.

I have only had a single read through of the 70 paragraph submission, and have not undertaken further research or even checked out the sources cited in the paper. However, I thought it might be useful to set out some of my immediate impressions.

I personally found the foreign affairs sections weaker than I would have anticipated. For example, given the challenge of the pandemic and of growing global inequalities, I would have expected a section on the United Nations and particularly on some of its agencies (I am thinking here of the World Health Organisation, the World Food Programme, the Food and Agriculture Organisation and other key UN bodies). The UN system is under great strain and merits some serious consideration.

But it was the security and defence sections that most took my eye (perhaps because these are areas where I acknowledge I have much to learn).

As far back as I can remember I have been against nuclear weapons and their presence in Scotland. I am an unabashed unilateralist. I am therefore delighted to see such clarity of purpose presented in the submission on paragraphs 64 and 65:

While HMNB Clyde remains one of the Royal Navy’s three main bases, its main role is as the home of the UK’s nuclear deterrent force which the Scottish National Party, along with a majority of Members of the Scottish Parliament, Scotland’s MPs and large sections of Scottish civil society continue to oppose. The continuation of the Dreadnought programme is strategically and economically misguided and these weapons of mass destruction must be removed from Scotland.

Beyond the financial cost, the opportunity cost of Trident renewal is a heavy burden for the rest of the Armed Forces to bear. “(Emphasis is mine)

But that does not mean I can ignore the fact of the growth of these terrible weapons globally. So while maintaining our unilateralist approach I am not aggrieved that the paper also calls in the current context for the UK to more vigorously pursue multi-lateral disarmament with her global partners.

There are clearly many issues raised far beyond the nuclear one, that will be important for an independent Scotland to take a position on from day one. This submission therefore could be read as a background paper supporting two areas of work. First, thinking about how we are going to transition to independence in the foreign affairs and defence fields, and second, what will be our early policy positions come independence. If we are taking moves towards independence seriously, we need to take papers like this seriously, and see what lessons can be deduced for an independent foreign and defence policy. This is a serious and welcome start.

While I would take issue with some of the missed opportunities (for example, I would have wanted a much stronger focus on international humanitarian issues such as supporting the victims of IEDs, landmines and the like) I have to say it raised many issues I hadn’t fully thought about, but recognise now need early consideration. I am no expert on defence intricacies, but the overall thrust of the arguments particularly related to our security interests focused on the so-called “High North” seem persuasively made to me.

Some areas however would have benefitted from reflecting more widely. In this sense the paper could have been more joined up. Allow me to give one example, again from the foreign affairs section, of particular concern to me and my previous campaign when an MP. Paragraph 23 of the submission has this to say.

Moreover, the efficacy of these targeted sanctions against human rights abusers are greatly watered down without a joined-up policy that also clamps down on the activities facilitated by the British Overseas Territories, which have long been havens for the corrupt and criminal to dodge sanctions and launder money. If the UK Overseas Territories do not impose publicly accessible registers of ownership by the end of 2020 – which have been deemed by the Foreign Affairs Committee to be “a matter of national security” – the Foreign Secretary should use the powers given to him in the Sanctions and Money Laundering Act 2018 to impose them

This section should have included calling for the complete overhaul of Scottish Limited Partnerships, one of the prime vehicles used by the corrupt and criminal to launder vast sums of money via overseas territories. The UK government could act tomorrow if it was serious about tackling such abuse. I campaigned on this when an MP, and the SNP’s Shadow Chancellor Alison Thewliss MP picked up the mantle. An opportunity missed.

Despite some of my reservations however, there has clearly been a lot of research and consideration been put into the construction of the submission that merits a wider audience and engagement within the party. There are many in the party with international experience and defence expertise that I am sure will find much to comment on, and from a more informed basis than myself. But I very much welcome the submission.

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