Scotland’s election on May 6 saw the Scottish National Party (SNP) win 64 of 129 seats in Holyrood, Scotland’s Parliament. Nicola Sturgeon, the leader of the SNP, takes this win—the latest in a series of four consecutive wins for the party—as a mandate to press ahead with a second referendum for Scottish independence.
For his part, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson disagrees, maintaining that the question was settled in 2014 when a majority of Scots voted for Scotland to stay in the U.K. But supporters of Scottish independence argue that the consequences and drama of Brexit—in which Scots voted 62% to 38% to remain in the EU—justify a second chance, and that the country shouldn’t be “dragged out (of Europe) against its will.”
Less clear, however, is what this would mean for NATO.
The SNP promised to rid Scotland of nuclear weapons in the event of independence. Considering that the U.K. has placed its nuclear arsenal in Scotland, and that NATO relies on Scotland to help defend the North Atlantic, this poses a problem.
For example, Cape Wrath in the Scottish Highlands accommodates the nation’s only naval gunfire range. Scotland also hosts RAF Lossiemouth, a key to the U.K.’s presence in the North Atlantic, and most importantly, Her Majesty’s Naval Base (HMNB) Clyde at Faslane.
Just northwest of Glasgow, HMNB Clyde is home to Britain’s submarine fleet and nuclear arsenal, including four nuclear-armed submarines collectively known as “Trident.”
Strategically, Trident’s location at HMNB Clyde is sound. Scotland’s west coast is infamously ragged, making it an ideal path for British submarines to quietly enter the North Atlantic undetected. It is also very secluded, and the waters around HMNB Clyde are easily navigable as well as deep. Lastly, it benefits from regular cloud cover. All these unique local features greatly benefit Royal Navy submarines, and their precious cargo, in their need for undetected and speedy access to the North Atlantic. The unique advantages of Scotland’s west coast for this purpose are not only known to the Royal Navy; the U.S. Navy itself had a base at Holy Loch until 1992, within eye shot of Faslane.
Similarly, the Royal Air Force’s (RAF) presence in northern Scotland is ideally placed to check any potential incursions into the North Atlantic. Were the RAF not to have a presence in northern Scotland, a Russian bomber would “already be over Aberdeen by the time you get anywhere near it,” Group Captain Chris Layden told The Economist.
For good reason then, the U.K.’s entire anti-submarine air fleet is hosted at RAF Lossiemouth. The strategic advantage of the location proved itself again last November, when two RAF jets were scrambled in response to two Russian planes detected near U.K. airspace.
Scotland’s location is also important for the U.K.’s defence thanks to its proximity to the GIUK (Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom) Gap. Largely neglected in its importance since the end of the Cold War, the GIUK Gap has been revived as a major topic in NATO circles. The GIUK Gap constrains forces that wish to pass through the area due to simple geography. It is a useful defensive feature for the U.K. and other NATO nations, as it would restrict forces approaching from the north into a narrow funnel.
The SNP promised during the most recent campaign that, if Scotland gains independence, they would insist that Trident, and HMNB Clyde, be removed as fast as possible. This would also call into question other military installations in Scotland, such as RAF Lossiemouth.
This overwhelming price tag might force the U.K. to consider whether it can afford to continue being a nuclear power at all, which would be a significant blow to NATO and the U.K.’s standing worldwide. Taken together, the defence implications of an independent Scotland would be massive.
But there may be a solution.
In a September 2020 paper, defence analyst and former SNP spokesperson Stuart Crawford, along with economist Richard Marsh, cost out a solution whereby Scotland could lease the existing installations back to the U.K. and NATO. The proceeds from this, the paper proposes, could fund a new “Scottish Defence Force” (SDF) that would suit the defence needs of the new nation. The authors estimate that the SDF would cost approximately £1.3 billion per year, and that formalized leasing agreements with NATO and the U.K. could net Scotland £1.2 billion per year, nearly offsetting the entire cost.
By this proposal, the U.K. would maintain its strategic position in the North Atlantic and remain a nuclear power, NATO would retain an important operating base, and Scotland would be getting some much-needed liquidity.
This deal would require some ideological flexibility from the SNP, who has nuclear disarmament at its core. Scottish voters, and the SNP, have said time and again that in the event of independence, HMNB Clyde would have to be dismantled. However, as mentioned above, it may take up to 20 years for the U.K. to fully relocate its nuclear arsenal.
Seeing as these 20 years are largely unavoidable in any case, the SNP should consider this proposal as a way to fill the coffers of (should a second referendum succeed) a newly independent Scotland.
There are other reasons to contemplate this proposal, considering the SNP’s wish that Scotland would join NATO and the EU as an independent nation, and be active in Arctic and North Atlantic security. Gaining membership to both depends on currying favour with states whose security is partly assured by installations like HMNB Clyde, and the UK’s and NATO’s active presence in the North Atlantic.
NATO relies on Scotland both for the military installations it hosts as well as its geography. In October of last year, NATO forces, including the Royal Canadian Navy, relied on HMNB Clyde and other bases in Scotland to host one of the largest military exercises of its kind in Europe.
What’s more, between May 8 and May 20 of this year, NATO held another such exercise, involving over 13,000 NATO military personnel. These exercises show just how valuable Scotland is in ensuring NATO’s namesake: the Atlantic itself.
Considering Scotland’s importance to NATO, being inflexible in the matter of HMNB Clyde would gain Scotland few friends in NATO (as well as the EU) and could threaten the possibility of admission to either group should Scotland become independent.
That said, the rejection of Scotland based on its democratic wish to be free of nuclear weapons would place NATO at odds with its own stated commitment to democracy.
Uncertainty abounds, and while this proposed “leasing solution” would be a difficult pill for Scotland to swallow, £1.2 billion per year might make it easier to wash down.
Elliott Simpson is a graduate of the University of Edinburgh and HEC Paris, and is currently in the Master of Global Affairs program at the Munk School at the University of Toronto. Elliott also produces a podcast and webinar series at Arctic360, Canada’s principal think tank for Arctic policy issues. He is a Junior Research Fellow at the NATO Association of Canada, and is looking forward to joining the Canadian Armed Forces Reserves later this year.
Photo credit: Barbara Carr / Three Saltires at the Border / CC BY-SA 2.0