Scotland’s independent think tank
Scotland’s independent think tank

A Scottish National Security Strategy – Stewart McDonald MP

The illegal and unprovoked Russian invasion of Ukraine has shattered the post-Cold War European order. As interstate conflict returns to our North Atlantic neighbourhood, governments and citizens must now reckon with the reality of living with a neighbour who, just hours away, is hell-bent on redrawing the map of Europe in blood. Scotland, tucked up in our quiet corner of the world, is no exception: as a European nation, we must now grapple with the return of war to our continent.

The war in Ukraine has forced Europeans of all political traditions to reflect on many of our long-held beliefs about peace and security. Within days of the invasion of Ukraine, Germany – where anti-militarism is woven into the DNA of most mainstream political parties – announced a €100bn increase in defence spending, while Annalena Baerbock, German Minster of Foreign Affairs and former leader of the German Green Party, has been among her country’s most vocal advocates for providing military aid to Ukraine.

This is a story repeated across Europe, as progressive and centre-left parties adjust to the new reality created by Vladimir Putin’s attempt to prosecute an imperialist war of conquest on the European continent.

In Finland, where just months ago only 28 per cent of the population supported NATO membership, there is now a clear public and parliamentary majority in favour of joining the alliance. The country’s Green League – part of Finland’s coalition government who have been historically opposed to NATO membership – exemplify this remarkable volte face better than many: the party’s Deputy Chair, MP Iiris Suomela, said the invasion of Ukraine shows that her country “needs new types of security guarantees, and it has become clear that we get the strongest guarantees through NATO membership”, while the Chair of the Green parliamentary group in the Finnish Parliament recently published a statement arguing that Finland’s “most natural and safe place” is to be found in the shelter of the NATO alliance.

In Sweden too, unprovoked Russian aggression has thawed decades-long opposition to NATO. Months after the governing Swedish Social Democratic Party reaffirmed its opposition to NATO membership, the Prime Minister – noting that “Sweden’s security position changed fundamentally” when Russia invaded Ukraine – has opened the door to NATO membership, with a review on joining the alliance to be completed before summer.

Many in Scotland have long admired much of Nordic social policy, but we have often neglected the reality that a sound defence posture is what ultimately underpins a nation’s ability to have a robust social contract with its people. As the Finnish Director-General for Defence Janne Kuusel observed, without a serious and credible defence policy, “We don’t have business, we don’t have welfare, we don’t have growth … It’s well understood”.

The debate in both Sweden and Finland recognises the reality that the world fundamentally changed with Putin’s assault on Ukraine in February. As the Swedish Prime Minister put it at a press conference in Helsinki with her Finnish counterpart, ‘there is a world before February 24th and a world after February 24th’.

And yet as our northern-European neighbours set about shaping the new Euro-Atlantic security order, the UK Government’s position is that its own defining defence and security posture – the 2020 integrated Review – doesn’t need to change.  This is hubris we can ill afford.

Just as I have called on the UK Government to revisit its now defunct Integrated Review, we in the SNP must show that we are adapting too. The world we want Scotland to enter as a member state has changed, and we must change with it.

Our aspiration for Scotland to be non-nuclear member of NATO has undoubtedly solidified. No other security proposition could possibly afford Scotland the comprehensive security arrangements that our country would need.

Not only do I believe this to be in Scotland’s national interest, but in the interest of NATO too. That being said, we must resist the temptation to rely solely on Scotland’s geo-strategic position to secure membership, important though it is. NATO is a burden-sharing alliance and Scotland, like all member states, will be expected to share in that burden. That means a new level of ambition on defence, similar to that being shown by our neighbours, compared to what we put forward in the 2014 independence referendum.

We must assert a new level of confidence in defence and security cooperation for an independent Scotland, including with the rest of the UK. As our nearest neighbour, with whom we share an island, it makes sense for a comprehensive defence and security treaty between Edinburgh and London to be an early priority. Such a treaty would be in the interests of both states and would be a confidence-building measure for allies.

I have also argued that Scotland should seek to be an early member of the UK-led Joint Expeditionary Force. Ben Wallace has previously referred to members of the JEF as ‘the doers’ – those who actively partner, train, and exercise in pursuit of common security – and that is what Scotland should be known as. This would also be an important confidence-building measure.

We will also want to ensure that we are able to offer allies a unique military capability that matters. Just as Denmark is renowned for its special forces capability and Estonia for its cyber, I have argued that an independent Scotland should build an adaptable and deployable capability in military medicine that we can readily offer partners in time of need.

A Scottish national security strategy should adopt the same whole-of-society approach to defence, security, and national resilience that we see in our Nordic neighbours.  Such an approach would allow us to protect our interests at home, but also contribute to the common security of our allies. That means putting non-kinetic threats such as pandemics, extreme weather and hostile disinformation on a level playing field with military threats. Finland learned this many years ago and today enjoys an international reputation as a “producer” of regional security.

The reordering of this Euro-Atlantic security order is a totemic moment. NATO and the EU, as the twin pillars of that order, have shown a remarkable ability to remain focused and to adapt. These burden-sharing alliances, based on mutual co-operation, provide the environment that states, and in particular small states, need to flourish. Without this security – the ability to make decisions unconstrained by hostile actors – nothing else is possible.

My aspiration is for Scotland to be a member of the international community and we cannot afford to sit still as the world changes around us. We must be actively engaged in the Euro-Atlantic security debate and ensure that we put forward a credible prospectus at the next referendum so that, like our neighbours across the North Sea, an independent Scotland will produce security just like we will produce green energy – both in our national interest and for the benefit of our North Atlantic neighbourhood.

Stewart McDonald MP is SNP Spokesperson for Defence and a member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee