By Professor Beatrice Heuser, Professor of International Relations, University of Glasgow
Following the publication by the UK Government of its Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy on 16 March 2021, Policy Scotland convened a Round Table on 7 April 2021 to consider the review with a particular focus on the implications for Scotland. This brought together Lord Peter Ricketts who, as National Security Adviser, presided over the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review and was heavily involved in the subsequent 2015 National Security Strategy, and Strategic Defence and Security Review; Professor Malcolm Chalmers of the Royal United Services Institute; and Dr Andrew Corbett of King’s College London’s Department of Defence Studies.
Ever since defence reviews have turned into reviews of “Security” more generally, the drawing up of such reviews has involved increasing numbers of sections of the government apparatus. Fourteen have been counted for this review (the 13 organisations that are represented on the National Security Council plus the Department for Trade) which prides itself on the “inclusiveness” of the “National Security Community” thus constituted. Inevitably, such a collective effort contains its own contradictions. Committee work brings to the table diverse and often contradictory considerations and concerns and assures that they are voiced; any strategic defence and security review thus always sets out to have its cake and eat it. It is designed to paper over differences and seeks through cleverly designed formulations to soften the blow of cuts. Except in those rare times of great prosperity, cuts invariably must be made when new demands are made by new security concerns emerging, new technologies forcing new acquisitions or at least the modernisation of existent systems (mainly meaning replacement of old by new, which also amounts to new acquisitions). Even then, the resulting effort – the Review – succeeds to greater and lesser degrees to paper over cracks and marry contradictions and divergent priorities and concerns in a more or less convincing way. Lord Ricketts’s main criticisms of the Review were that, while very comprehensive, it does not go much further beyond defence than previous reviews – and that it is neither really integrated nor coherent; arguably less so than some previous efforts, despite the efforts of Professor John Bew who co-ordinated the present review from the Policy Unit of No. 10 Downing Street.
Two related key incoherencies are the identification of Russia as main security threat while announcing an “Indo-Pacific tilt” of UK interests and defence efforts; and the emphasis on Britain’s independence (from the European Union, mentioned but four times, the terms independent/independence mentioned 28 times), offset by countless references to the need for collective security (14 mentions), multilateralism (35 mentions) and co-operation with “like-minded” nations (13 mentions) and, of course, NATO in particular (45 mentions), ever since 1949 the cornerstone of British defence. Notwithstanding the “Indo-Pacific tilt” (mentioned 32 times), Europe gets 65 mentions; clearly many among those who had an input into this document still see Britain’s fate being strongly entwined with the Continent from which it cannot detach itself geographically. And yet, as Malcolm Chalmers pointed out, there is an “EU-sized hole” in the Review, as it makes no attempt to define how the UK can best co-operate with the EU in all the many areas of common concern. The EU is airbrushed out of reality in the assertion that “The UK has a seat in every major multilateral organisation” (p.10) – yes, it used to, making it the unique link between The Commonwealth, Five Eyes and Europe. No more.
The full title of the Integrated Review adds “Global Britain in a Competitive Age”. The Review is based on the pessimistic interpretation that the Age of a rules-based international system, largely a child of Western international law and the preponderance of Western powers in 1945 when the United Nations’ Charter was drawn up, has been superseded by a new Age of Competition. Rather than explaining how the UK intends to shape the world, Andrew Corbett emphasised, the Review seems to have resigned itself to living in a world that Thucydides or Bismarck would have recognised. But if we have indeed moved back from a regulated international environment to a more Hobbesian one, it stands to reason that a “middle-sized power” (Malcolm Chalmers) has no hope of thriving on its own, lest it finds that in such a hostile environment it will not only be “solitary” but fare in a way that is “nasty” and “brutish”, ending up quite “poor”. To Andrew Corbett it makes little sense for the UK, on its own, to hope to “shape” the new competitive international order of the future, when “we need to be looking to sustain the existing one”. The obvious way to do so – through intense and systematic co-operation with all powers sharing the UK’s outlook – of course stands diametrically opposed to its exit from the EU, which for obvious reasons is not spelled out explicitly in the Review.
Malcolm Chalmers focused particularly on the political economy dimension of the Review, exposed as it is to politico-economic influences of China, the USA, and the EU, and like all other states now under extreme fiscal pressure resulting from the excess government spending during the coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis, given that the effects of the 2008 subprime loan crisis have barely subsided, and with the additional self-inflicted pain of the immediate Brexit-related economic losses, whatever a brilliant independent future might bring. How, in view of all of this financial loss, the UK Government can make the necessary investments to turn the United Kingdom into a “science and technology superpower”, as the Review promises, is not spelled out. The decision to reduce foreign aid made in this Review (coinciding with the disbanding of the Department of Foreign Investment and Development and its subsumption into the Foreign and Commonwealth Office) is an understandable emergency measure dictated by budgetary constraints, but hardly addresses the climate change issue, nor does it enhance Britain’s proud international solo standing, its ambition to be “a force for good” (p.47) that might stem the return to a Hobbesian international system.
What are the implications of the Review for Scotland?
The Review contains a number of elements designed specifically to bolster the Union of the United Kingdom, beyond the assertion that the “Union between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland has proved its worth time and again”. In the context of science and technology, Scotland’s high-tech satellite industry is praised (with commercial satellite launches from Scottish sites from 2022), as there is the promise of further ship-building orders from the Royal Navy for shipyards in Scotstoun, Rosyth and Govan (Wales and Northern Ireland each get their share in the form of the manufacture of armoured vehicles and more satellites respectively), with the promise of “new jobs”, of course (p.90). The trade and investment hub already in existence in Scotland is to be copied for Northern Ireland and Wales. Scotland’s geographic defence contribution is mentioned with maritime patrol aircraft operating from RAF Lossiemouth; interestingly, the statement that all the UK’s submarines will be concentrated at HMNB Clyde is not mentioned in the Review itself, but in the accompanying MoD’s Command paper Defence in a Competitive Age (CP411), which refers to the 6,800 employments it provides (CP411 p. 60). The 9,820 military personnel and the 3,970 direct civilian employees of the defence sector in Scotland are, of course, mentioned there as well, alongside those in the other devolved parts of the Union, to draw attention to the benefits of the Union. CP411 details that 12,400 jobs in Scotland will be directly dependent on the defence industry, and that the UK Government intends to spend £1.06 billion on shipbuilding in Scotland over the period up to 2030 covered by the Review (CP411 p.59).
If Scottish independence were negotiated amicably between Edinburgh and Westminster, and if Scotland intends post-separation to apply for NATO membership, there is no reason why a closely collaborative arrangement could not be worked out to allow Scottish military personnel, ports and air space to continue to work jointly with the forces of rUK and be financed jointly. Nor is it clear that the shipbuilding contracts for the Royal Navy could, let alone inevitably would, all be moved to shipyards in the rUK. But this is clearly a subject that would be crucial to Scottish politics. A Scottish Government, concerned to look after the interests of the workforce potentially affected, would be under pressure to aim for a velvet divorce. A less than amicable separation could have serious consequences for the defence sector in Scotland.
Watch the full Round Table discusson with the panel of:
- Lord (Peter) Ricketts, Former Permanent Secretary at the Foreign Office and National Security Advisor to the UK Government
- Dr Andrew Corbett, Defence Studies Department, Kings College, London
- Professor Malcolm Chalmers of the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies