12 April 2021

Scotland and the Arms Trade: Progress over Perfection?

Tom Macleod on the arms industry in Scotland, the independence debate and the balance between values and interests in foreign policy

Tom Macleod

In recent months, a number of publications have contributed positively to the increasing discussion on the potential foreign policy of an independent Scotland. Anthony Salamone’s own Scottish Statebuilder Projectwhich includes Scotland’s EU Blueprint and Scotland’s Global Blueprinthas appeared along with Stephen Gethins’s book, Nation to Nation. In November 2020, SNP Foreign Affairs Spokesperson Alyn Smith gave a speech outlining a Scotland in the World policy resolution at the party’s conference.

All of these works are right to highlight the progressive contributions that an independent Scotland could make to global affairs. All are based on an image of Scotland as a compassionate, values-based and outward-looking member of the global multilateral order – making its voice heard in partnership with like-minded allies and neighbours in the European Union, NATO, the United Nations and other fora.

However, the reality of any country’s foreign policy is that interests and values are subject to compromise, regardless of how a state articulates its national story or how it sees itself in the wider world. More simply, and perhaps cynically, a state’s image both domestically and internationally can be a matter of political public relations, with civil servants and ministers curating a state’s image as best they can to as wide an audience as possible.

The paradox is there for any analyst or observer to see in countries large and small. The United States projects its image as the upholder of the global liberal democratic order, while having simultaneously engaged in the secret detention and torture of terrorist suspects. Ireland has an enviable, positive global reputation, but also finds itself under investigation by the UN regarding its tax policies and whether they harm children’s rights in developing countries. It would be naïve to think that Scotland would not face similar difficulties, should it become an independent state in the future. Policy-makers should view questions on the contradiction between values and interests as an opportunity to engage with Scottish civil society in as open and transparent a manner as possible.

The arms industry in Scotland

The future of defence and security policy, should Scotland vote for independence, is an area of debate that – at least at a mainstream level – tends to repeatedly circle back to the role of the UK’s Trident nuclear deterrent and its location at the Clyde Naval Base. The Scottish Government is clear in its opposition to nuclear weapons and has stated that, in the event of independence, safe removal of these weapons from Scottish waters would be a priority.

However, there is far more ground to cover than Trident in the conversation on the future of the military-industrial complex in Scotland. For example, the MOD Hebrides Range is used for complex weapons trials and missile defence exercises, such as NATO’s 2019 ‘Formidable Shield’. RAF Lossiemouth hosts the Eurofighter Typhoon and US Poseidon aircraft. Discussion over the role that these sites, their staff and infrastructure would play in a future independent state is much needed. In fact, they would arguably be more challenging issues than Trident, given the SNP’s position that an independent Scotland would seek membership of NATO – and therefore ostensibly retain these facilities. This is where the paradox between values and interests may cause tension amongst advocates for independence and the wider public.

One particular area which merits an open discussion is the future of Scotland’s arms trade. Debates over potential relationships between arms companies and a future independent Scottish Government have been given greater urgency in recent years, due to the ongoing sale of UK-supplied weapons components to Saudi Arabia for use in the war in Yemen.

According to Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), companies with operations in Scotland, such as Raytheon, Leonardo, Rolls Royce and Penman, amongst others, manufacture parts for weapons and weapons systems subsequently used by the Saudi-led coalition. In its Made in Scotland report, CAAT cites evidence gathered on the ground after the 2016 Mastaba market attack, in which 97 civilians were killed. Fragments of US company Raytheon’s MK-84 bomb and Paveway laser guidance kit were found at the site by Human Rights Watch. The company’s Glenrothes factory produces the Paveway system.

Arms sales are currently a reserved matter for the UK Government. The SNP has made clear its own views on sales to Saudi Arabia – of which Scottish-made components are a part. The party has called for an immediate ban on sales to the country. Alyn Smith is also sponsoring a Private Member’s Bill, currently making its way through the House of Commons, seeking greater transparency in arms exports, along with a ban on the use of lethal autonomous weapons.

Yet, the day may come when the buyers of such weapons are no longer just the Saudis and an independent Scotland has full control of its arms exports. As the debate over certain aspects of Scottish foreign policy intensifies, it is right to consider how various interested parties in Scotland view an independent Scottish Government’s relationship with the defence and arms sector, and the countries looking to purchase their goods.

‘The vast majority of people in the SNP are not pacifist’, Smith says. ‘We recognise that we need an arms industry because that’s high-end engineering; it’s precision software and all the stuff that’s important for the Scottish economy and will remain so. What we do need to have more of, and what I would like to see more of in an independent Scotland, is transparency [over exports]. There are a number of countries that are way ahead of the UK in doing that.’

‘But I am not against the defence industry, for reasons of national security and economic security. There would be an awful lot less research in Scottish universities if the arms sector wasn’t engaged in Scotland. That makes some people uncomfortable – I appreciate and respect that – but the SNP is an aspiring independent state, not an aspiring Campaign Against Arms Trade or Amnesty International.’

When asked about the potential conflict between the narrative of a future independent Scotland as a progressive, outward-looking nation that also sells arms to states such as Saudi Arabia, Smith insists that any export licensing regime of weapons from Scotland would be considerably stronger than many other countries, including the UK: ‘I would like this to be discussed in a specific committee of the Scottish Parliament, not just in terms of an ethical foreign policy, but also the economic impact, in terms of the ecosystem of research that we have [around the arms trade]. So, yes, of course, there’s a paradox. But every country deals with that. Either you take a principled decision that “We are not going to have any arms sector engagement at all” and you need to justify how many tens of thousands of high-end engineering jobs we’re losing, or you need to find a way to make it work.’

Potential for change in the arms industry

Whether it is finance in the City of London after the EU referendum or defence in the event of a vote for Scottish independence, the spectre of job losses due to firms relocating, lost trade and revenue is often raised. However, Emma Cockburn, Scotland Coordinator for Campaign Against Arms Trade, does not believe that this choice between job losses or continued weapons manufacturing stacks up to scrutiny, should the leaders of a future independent state be inclined to take a much tougher, anti-arms sales approach.

‘There are big densities of Scotland that are reliant upon arms manufacturers’, she says. ‘But, from our research, it’s not that these workers are very grateful to be doing that job. And it’s not that’s the work they actively want to be doing. It’s just that is the work that’s there, and they’re being trained to do it.’

CAAT believes that a choice could be made by a future independent Scotland – to refuse to export arms without the oft-mentioned job losses. For that, strong engagement on diversification of labour, from both workers and government, would be required to ensure that these highly-skilled workers secured ‘socially-useful’ jobs. Cockburn cites an example from the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, in March and April 2020, to illustrate how the arms sector can – overnight – redeploy its skillset.

‘We had massive arms companies, like Boeing and Babcock, make deals with the UK Government to produce ventilators for the NHS. What we saw, literally overnight, was arms companies diversify their production lines to move from creating weapons or engines to making ventilators. So, as anti-war activists, we’ve seen something happen overnight that we’ve been told for decades was just not possible. With the tiniest bit of government intervention, I can only imagine what it would be like if we managed to force hands into actively training those workers and getting those production lines to change. Because we do not want those jobs to disappear. We want them to change towards building a society that doesn’t contribute or profit from death and destruction.’

This example gives future policy-makers much food for thought. Indeed, the Scottish Government proudly welcomed the efforts of Plexus and Raytheon UK’s Scotland-based operations for their contributions to the fight against the pandemic. An independent Scotland would need plenty of bold, innovative thinking to build an independent foreign and domestic policy nexus across a range of sectors. Would it be wildly quixotic to challenge parts of the defence industry to make Scotland a world-leader in ventilator production or life-saving, high-tech medical supplies?

Assisting in such a challenge would not be uncharted territory for a future Scottish Government. Public money is already given to the aerospace and defence sector via Scottish Enterprise – the subject of much criticism by CAAT and opposition politicians such as Patrick Harvie, co-leader of the Scottish Greens. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon stresses that this support is focused on helping arms firms ‘diversify and develop non-military applications for their technology’, and that the Scottish Government does not provide funding for weapons manufacturing. Campaigners believe that this is opaque and shaky ground to stand on, given the continued export from Scotland of components bound for the war in Yemen, while the SNP and Scottish Government oppose the sale of arms to the Saudi coalition by the UK Government.

Building a fuller foreign policy debate

Former SNP MP Stephen Gethins, now Professor of Practice in International Relations at the University of St Andrews and author of Nation to Nation: Scotland’s Place in the World, sees an opportunity for an independent Scotland to learn from its European neighbours, when it comes to the arms trade and an ethical foreign policy.

‘At the core of the SNP’s foreign policy is a commitment to multilateralism and being actively pursuant of a common foreign and security policy at a European level’, says Gethins. ‘I think you can be a multilateralist, believe in the international rules-based order and not be anti-militarist as well. Scotland can continue to be one of the leaders in technologies around the arms trade and continue to have a military presence along with its allies in NATO, the EU and elsewhere, but while following the norms that many countries do. Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Belgium have arms and arms trade history and are still able to follow these norms. I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive.’

Gethins is, however, in favour of maximum transparency and accountability in an independent Scotland with regards to exporting arms to other states. ‘I’d even go one step further and say: Is this an area where we could be looking to work with our EU partners – if Scotland is a member of the European Union? Are there areas where the EU could be tightening this up, given it has common foreign policy goals?’

All states face the contradiction of promoting their place in the world alongside the reality of their interests, in a complex geopolitical environment. An independent Scotland would be no different as it built a foreign policy, alliances and a role on the global stage, however small. What would Scotland’s position be on the EU’s policy of return of refugees to Libyan detention camps? Would Scotland seek to be part of an EU bloc opposing Germany’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline, in support of Ukraine? Questions such as this may seem fanciful now, but they are ones which should be part of the increasing discussion on Scottish foreign policy – to cement a culture of honest, realistic policy-making.

As with many areas of debate surrounding Scottish independence, the issue of the arms trade and its skilled workforce would be one for a post-independent Scotland to discuss, debate and decide. It is clearly a topic on which divergent views are held, both within politics and civil society. Yet, whether or not a future in which those decisions need to be made comes to pass, it would serve Scottish public debate well to start discussing these issues openly and transparently now.

Much is made of how Scotland sees the world differently from Westminster. This is couched in the nation’s reputation for and desire to promote progressive values, multilateralism and an open, peaceful world. While these would be crucial, foundational tenets for a state building a foreign affairs architecture and diplomatic culture, a truly comprehensive interrogation of the tougher questions – such as the role of Scotland’s existing defence and weapons infrastructure, in the event of independence – should be something to strive for, rather than shirk from.

Tom Macleod is a journalist and presenter for Sky News

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