History has a way of repeating itself. Over the past few months Defence Secretary Hammond, some of the British Army’s top brass and (of course) the Union Jocks have been doing their best to prove that there’s no way that a puny, broke, and generally useless little country like Scotland could ever hope to defend itself. Not without Britain’s mighty defence forces at its back. Nor, they argue, could we seek shelter in NATO. Why would the alliance want Scotland as member particularly since SNP policy was to get rid of the Royal Navy’s nuclear-armed submarines from Faslane. The fact that only three of the 28 members of NATO – Britain, the USA and France – are nuclear armed seems to have escaped their notice.
And at the end of October the Home Secretary Teresa May added a whole new dimension to the security debate by declaring that that an independent Scotland would no longer be the secure, happy, terrorist-free place it is today. That’s because we’d no longer have the protection of organs like (among others) MI5, MI6, GCHQ, the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau and the National Cyber Security Programme. Not only that, but the huge American security apparatus would be alarmed by the notion of London losing control of Scotland. Rubbishing the SNP has now become Westminster’s sport of choice.
None of this is new, of course. The last time independence looked like a real prospect, in the mid 1970s (when the SNP boasted 11 MPs) the party sat down and thrashed out a defence policy for the independent Scotland that they thought was on its way. As defence policies go it was a modest document, suitable for a small north European state, non-nuclear of course, but with enough heft in the way of troops, ships and aircraft to defend the offshore oil industry and Scotland’s fisheries. And big enough, it was claimed, to deploy a brigade-strength force to Nato if required.
The SNP’s military strategising was kept under wraps for the best part of a year and a half, probably to avoid handing their enemies a useful large target. But that changed in July 1976 when the details of the SNP’s defence plans were leaked to Stewart McLachlan then of the Daily Record. The tabloid paper splashed the story under the headline `Nat’s lift lid off defence’ and trumpeted as a`scoop’. At which point Westminster and Whitehall cranked up the smear mill to rubbish the nationalists.
Interestingly, the politician who pressed the starter button was not one of the Labour Government’s SNP-hating attack dogs but that mildest of mild-mannered Tories the late George Younger, MP for Ayr (who’d been a junior defence minister in the Heath Government of 1970-1974). A few days after the Daily Record piece had appeared Younger telephoned the Ministry of Defence (MoD) seeking some information. His call was recorded by one D.D. Pearley who scribbled a hand-written note to the MoD’s Parliamentary Clerk.
George Younger phoned yesterday evening to say that he wanted this information to embarrass the Scottish Nationalists. .. He’d like as full an answer as possible and in the circumstances this seems reasonable.
Which in itself was interesting. Mister Pearley was an MoD official charged with carrying out the policy of a Labour government but here he was responding to a request from an opposition Tory MP for information that could be used to discredit another opposition party, the SNP. And the words `in the circumstances this seems reasonable’ suggest he was more than happy to oblige nice Mister Younger.
Younger must have got the information he sought because later filed no fewer than 19, detailed parliamentary questions on the likely costs of the SNP’s proposals and the problems involved in disentangling Scotland from the UK’s defence infrastructure. As an ex Minister of State at the MoD himself Younger must have known that there was no way that the MoD could publicly answer these questions without spilling too many military beans. As he must have expected he was told by Pat Duffy, the Under Secretary for the Navy, that `It is not our normal practice to disclose such information.’
Not that Duffy’s response mattered. For Younger it was mission accomplished. He’d brought the SNP’s defence policy (via Stewart McLachland’s article in the Daily Record) to the attention of the MoD’s top brass. Between them McLachlan’s exclusive and Younger’s questions prodded the MoD into joining the campaign against the SNP. On the 12th of August, 1976 one M. Howitt from the Defence Secretariat (DS) 22 circulated a letter and report to various DS operations. His letter is entitled `Separate Armed Forces for Scotland’ and came with a three-section annex. He wrote:-
I attach a copy of the article from the Scottish Daily Record of 30 July about the defence forces of an independent Scotland with which many of you are familiar as a result of the PQs (parliamentary questions) tabled by George Younger last week.
`Secretary of State (Roy Mason, MP) has asked for the proposals in the article to be costed as a matter of urgency and for any comments which we can offer about the likely proportion of Scottish GNP which would have to be devoted to defence if these plans were implemented. I think that our reply should place at least as much emphasis on criticisms of the SNP’s manning and tactical proposals as on their financial estimates. Such general criticisms are likely to be more suitable for public airing than any estimate of likely costs…
In other words, dish up any dirt you can find. Plainly Howitt was as worried about the rise of the SNP as anyone else in Whitehall and Westminster.
Howitt goes on `The answers to these and other questions may also help to frame our criticisms of the SNP’s proposals and here I think we must follow Secretary of State’s general advice to make pessimistic (for the SNP) assumptions…’ And he concludes `I have no doubt that addressees will be able to think of many other points on which criticisms can be leveled at the SNP.’
Mister Howitt’s letter with its substantial annex was circulated around the MoD. Most of the Defence Secretariat’s divisions seem to have received a copy: DS4, DS5, DS7, DS9, DS12, DS1, DS14, DS16, DS20, F1(Air), F1(N), I of E(A),I of E(B). Five of them also received copies of George Younger’s 19 parliamentary questions. Over the next few weeks the replies came trickling in from the various departments. Almost forty years later they still make intriguing reading for the light they shed on how Her Majesty’s civil servants `handled’ what they saw as the threat from the SNP.
The department labelled DS9 (which looked after the Royal Air Force) felt that the SNP had underestimated the costs of running even a modest air force, that they hadn’t provided for an air defence capability which meant they would need a couple of dozen Phantoms as well as the Harriers they’d budgeted for. This, the writer felt, was important if Scotland wanted to join NATO and help `preserve the integrity of the present UK Air Defence.’ (At the time NATO was fretting about the threat posed by Soviet `Backfire’ bombers racing down from the Kola Peninsula to attack Europe through what was known as the Iceland-Scotland gap.)
A few days later DS4 (The Royal Navy) wrote that if the SNP wanted a `small, steady-state navy’ then it would need a fleet of around 12 (non-nuclear) submarines, five frigates, two destroyers, plus an substantial array of fleet auxiliaries, hovercraft, patrol boats and helicopters, none of which would come cheap. Added to which would be the cost of shore bases, dockyards, maintenance etc. DS4 estimated that to keep such a small but capable navy afloat would cost around £200 million a year, a fair slice of anybody’s oil revenues.
Less technical but just as interesting was the contribution from DS12, the division that looked after NATO affairs. In a wordy but interesting paper (by someone whose signature is unreadable) DS12, lays out the concerns that NATO might have with an independent Scotland. The man from DS12 thought it would be `desirable’ for Scotland to be a member of NATO but it was not clear whether the SNP wanted to be a full member like the UK or semi-detached like France and Greece. He thought the plan to keep a Scots brigade in Germany or Norway was feasible enough but agreed with DS9 that the SNP plan would leave a sizeable hole in NATO’s air defences unless Scotland bought more Phantom interceptors.
But, predictably perhaps, DS12’s biggest worry was the effect of an independent Scotland insisting on getting rid of the American and British nuclear-armed submarines from the Holy Loch and Faslane respectively. That, DS12 reasoned’ would lead to `a serious weakening of the US contribution to the Alliance. This would presumably be compounded by the need for England to develop a new site for our Polaris base at the same time. There would also be complications with existing NATO infrastructure facilities in Scotland.’
There’s some irony in the fact that if this material had leaked into the public domain at the time it would have provided the SNP with a fine model, constructed by experts, of just the kind of defence forces that independent Scotland would have needed. It’s likely that the experienced hands in the Defence Secretariat did a better job of putting together an ideal Scottish defence force than did the SNP’s military planners. But all the papers were stamped `confidential’ `restricted’ or `secret’ and buried. And nothing found its way into the hands of either the press or the nationalists.