Building a New Scotland: An independent Scotland's Place in the World

This paper sets out the Scottish Government's proposals for an independent Scotland's place in the world.

A strategic approach to defence and security in an independent Scotland

Key points

The defence and security of the nation and its people is the first duty of every government, and this will be no different in an independent Scotland.

This Scottish Government proposes that an independent Scotland would apply to join NATO. Scotland would seek discussions with NATO leaders at the earliest opportunity following a vote for independence.

Upon rejoining the European Union, this Scottish Government would commit fully to the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy and would work collaboratively on issues of defence and security with the nations of these islands to ensure our mutual safety.

This Scottish Government would introduce constitutional provisions to ensure that in an independent Scotland, deployments overseas on military operations would only take place if they were lawful, approved by Scottish Ministers, and authorised by the Scottish Parliament.

This Scottish Government believes that nuclear weapons should not be based in Scotland and should be removed from Scotland in the safest and most expeditious manner possible following independence.

An independent Scotland would invest in the core capabilities of its armed forces.

The defence and security of the nation, its people and resources are the first duty of every government. How we protect our people, territory, critical national infrastructure and way of life from threats will be a key question for a newly independent nation.

The threats we face today are arguably more complex than ever and have significantly changed over the past 10 years.[9] The conflict in Ukraine has shown us that hostile nations still pose a catastrophic threat to democratic values and our way of life. Cyber-attacks pose risks to our critical infrastructure, economy, people and democracy. And of course, all societies are having to face up to the consequences – including the security consequences – of climate change.[10]

In confronting these challenges there are choices which an independent Scotland can make that would enhance our nation’s security. This Scottish Government proposes an approach to defence and security policy that reflects our broader values, with an emphasis on collaboration and building collective security. As an independent country, Scotland would be able to choose to defend our interests and support our allies in a manner commensurate with the threats we face.

This section focuses on the principles and policies which this Scottish Government proposes would underpin the defence and security arrangements for an independent Scotland. The subsequent section sets out the tools and capabilities the armed forces of an independent Scotland will need.

Scotland’s geography of defence

Our defence and security needs are not only defined by the threats we face. A significant factor when planning our capability is the geography of Scotland.

Scotland shares land and sea borders with the rest of the UK; maritime boundaries with Ireland, Norway and Denmark (in respect of the Faroe Islands), as well as a significant high seas boundary. It is surrounded by almost two thirds of the current UK’s domestic maritime Exclusive Economic Zone and the fourth largest sea area of the core EU.[11] These waters are home to significant conventional and emerging renewable energy assets as well as the basis of our fishing sector.[12]

Our nation projects into the North Atlantic at a strategically vital location. Sea routes from the Arctic into the North Sea and Atlantic Ocean, and sea lanes stretching from Northern Europe to the wider world are on our doorstep. Scotland also occupies a prominent position in relation to the major air and communications routes between North America and Europe.

Being an Atlantic nation, on the north-west of Europe, and in close proximity to many EU and NATO member states, an independent Scotland would be the world’s most northerly non-Arctic nation, with a substantial coastline and sea area[13] and a clear interest in contributing to the stability and defence of the region.

However, many of the current and emerging threats facing Scotland are digital rather than physical in nature. So, alongside a strong focus on our geography and location, our defence and security capabilities must also be able to address these emerging threats.[14]

Pillars of defence in an independent Scotland

This Scottish Government would frame the future defence policy of an independent Scotland around the following objectives:

  • securing Scotland’s borders, land, airspace and sea, deterring attacks and protecting our citizens and assets from threats
  • supporting Scotland’s communities and civil authorities to respond to emergencies and contribute to resilience
  • protecting Scotland’s national interests and economic wellbeing, alongside the key values and underlying principles that support Scottish society and our way of life
  • contributing internationally to the protection and promotion of human rights, the rule of law, democratic values, peace and security
  • protecting Scotland’s national interests by being an active partner in collective security

To achieve these objectives, this Scottish Government believes that the best guarantee of security and stability for an independent Scotland is through strong relationships with our neighbours in these islands, Europe and the North Atlantic.

Following a vote for independence this Scottish Government would seek to align development of any Scottish military capability with the broader strategic objectives of Scotland, NATO, the EU and the UK.

1. NATO membership

An independent Scotland would play its part in building collective security and capability.

The case for supporting NATO’s collective defence arrangements[15] has been reinforced by Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. This has caused a number of nations to reassess their defence requirements, especially with regard to defence spending, and prompted the decisions of Finland and Sweden to apply for NATO membership, with Finland becoming NATO’s 31st member state in April 2023.[16]

This Scottish Government would seek NATO membership for an independent Scotland via NATO’s ‘open door’ policy[17] and would:

  • commit to defence spending of 2% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), recognising NATO’s enduring commitment to invest in defence capabilities
  • align with NATO’s defence principles, contributing to the global alliance as an active partner
  • work with neighbouring members in defence of the North Atlantic and High North region, with a likely focus on the strategically important Greenland–Iceland–UK (GIUK) Gap
  • provide conventional forces to NATO operations in support of Treaty objectives and participate in joint exercises conducted by NATO and by neighbouring countries, including the UK, EU and Nordic states
  • contribute forces to NATO and UN-led international humanitarian and peacekeeping missions
  • work with NATO allies towards worldwide nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament

Scotland would seek accession talks with NATO at the earliest possible stage following a vote for independence, to begin the established stages of negotiating NATO membership.[18] This would be closely coordinated with a comprehensive and expert-led Defence and Security Review, ensuring that our planning and capability aligned with the requirements of NATO membership.

2. EU membership and a commitment to the Common Security and Defence Policy

Membership of the EU would be the second key component of the defence strategy of an independent Scotland.

On regaining EU membership, this Scottish Government proposes that an independent Scotland in the EU would commit fully to the EU Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP),[19] contributing to missions that support global peace and security. In doing so an independent

Scotland would join the family of nations who are fully committed to the international rules-based system and multilateralism.

The CSDP sits within the EU’s wider Common Foreign and Security Policy, which in the words of the EU itself allows “Member States to tackle challenges they cannot solve alone and ensuring the security and prosperity of EU citizens.”[20]

The EU’s approach to security and defence policy involves deploying a combination of civilian and military activity and assets. It plays an important role in peace-keeping operations, conflict prevention and the strengthening of international security.

The EU’s Strategic Compass for Defence and Security,[21] launched in March 2022, sets out a shared assessment of the strategic environment in which the EU is operating, together with plans to improve the EU’s ability to act decisively in crises and to defend its security and its citizens.

The EU and NATO work closely together,[22] thereby strengthening their ability to tackle shared challenges and ensuring value for money from member state contributions. In recent years cooperation has intensified in reaction to new and emerging threats such as Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

This Scottish Government firmly aligns itself with the EU’s and NATO’s collective and collaborative approach to security and defence. As an independent EU member state and NATO ally, Scotland would be a committed and active member of international security and defence structures, including the provision and sharing of resources to bolster our collective security and defence.

An independent Scotland would also be an active member of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE)[23] and the UN, contributing to operations and missions to maintain or restore international peace and security, thereby safeguarding the freedom and security of Scotland and our people.

3. A mutually beneficial relationship across these islands

An independent Scotland’s position, sharing a landmass with the rest of the UK and proximity to Ireland, demands, as a matter of common sense, cooperation on issues of defence and security. This happens between the UK and Ireland now.[24] An independent Scotland’s most enduring defence and security partnership would be with the UK and Ireland and would require working collaboratively to ensure our mutual safety.

An early aim, following a vote for independence, would be to establish the joint readiness, capability and intelligence sharing mechanisms to support the security of these islands and our wider alliances, as well as arrangements for the transition to independent Scottish military capability.

As the ‘Building a New Scotland’ series makes clear, independence would enable Scotland to thrive as a globally-connected nation, while preserving our deep connections with our closest neighbours, from which a mutually respectful and mutually beneficial partnership can be forged.

Future defence policy and democratic oversight of overseas deployments

This Scottish Government would also set as a cornerstone of defence policy that an independent Scotland would only participate in overseas military operations that are lawful, approved by Scottish Ministers, and authorised by the Scottish Parliament. This Scottish Government would therefore introduce a constitutional process to ensure that deployment overseas on military operations would only take place if it was:

1. in accordance with the UN Charter

2. agreed by Scottish Ministers as a matter of collective responsibility and as being in line with domestic law, and

3. approved by the Scottish Parliament

This would in no way prevent Scotland’s ability to act immediately in self-defence in the event of armed attack (Article 51 of the UN Charter[25]) and nor would it conflict with NATO’s Article 5 commitment to collective defence.[26]

A nuclear-free Scotland

It has been the longstanding position of this Scottish Government that nuclear weapons have no place in an independent Scotland.[27] In this world of heightened tension, the risk of deliberate or even accidental use of nuclear weapons, with its grave humanitarian and environmental consequences, cannot be ignored.

‘Building a New Scotland: Creating a modern constitution for an independent Scotland’[28] proposed that the interim constitution should place a duty on the post-independence Scottish Government to pursue nuclear disarmament. This would mean that immediately upon securing a vote for independence, the Scottish Government would pursue negotiations with a view to securing the safe and expeditious removal from Scotland of the nuclear weapons based for over half a century less than 30 miles from Glasgow, Scotland’s largest population centre, at HMNB Clyde (Faslane). No other country has based its entire nuclear arsenal in the territory of another state for an extended period.

The costs of maintaining and replacing nuclear weapons are prohibitive. These submarines and their missiles are now being replaced and the cost estimates vary widely. A House of Commons 2023 report[29] quoted a range of estimates including one from the Nuclear Information Service which calculated the costs of replacement out to 2070 at £172 billion.[30] Average in-service costs for Trident capital and running costs, including the costs for the Atomic Weapons Establishment, currently equate to around 6% of the UK defence budget – approximately £3 billion for 2023/24, based on planned defence expenditure.[31]

By making different choices on nuclear weapons, Scotland’s defence spending could instead be focused on conventional forces and national security and intelligence infrastructure. In doing so, we would be better placed to respond to the threats we face in the modern world, while also investing in building a fairer more dynamic independent economy.

Furthermore, this Scottish Government does not regard the removal of nuclear weapons from Scottish soil as an obstacle to an independent Scotland’s aims of gaining membership of NATO. Only a minority of NATO members host nuclear weapons.[32] An independent Scotland’s position would therefore be similar to the approach of most NATO member countries, which neither possess nor host nuclear weapons. Finland’s accession to NATO in April 2023[33] highlighted that hosting nuclear weapons is not a precondition for membership.



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