Archive for category Defence

To be able to defend his Budget, Osborne must cut Defence spending

It is easy to fall into the trap of low expectations from budgets. Any one individual typically only ever hears the details from their own Chancellor and not those from other countries. This dulls the imagination of the range of ways in which taxes can be spent, a sort of mental paralysis that I fear parts of the UK is currently in the grip of.

For example, did you know that you get 2 days paternal leave in Greece but 12 months in Germany? Or that Finland recruits its teachers from the top 10% of graduates (and all must hold a Masters degree in Education)? Or that Sweden spends more on pre-school childcare than it does on Defence? Unthinkable in the UK, but already a reality in parts of Europe. Also in Sweden, nursery care is capped at 3% of a family’s salary. 3%. That’s enough to make some British parents sob hot tears given how many thousands of pounds many of them fork out on day care each year.

I wonder what we do here in the UK that our fellow Europeans look at in wonder. Don’t all rush to answer at once…

So, for my own benefit, I wanted to compile a breakdown of different countries’ budgets to get a feel for how much each spend on health, education, defence etc across Europe. Sadly, this proved too difficult an exercise, but I was able to pull together some useful lists showing spending as a percentage of GDP for certain countries (see list below).

These lists show that the UK is not the worst country in Europe in terms of value for money, but it is a far cry from being the envy of the Continent. Even our hallowed health spending on the NHS is middle of the road, as is our spending on education.

The spending on welfare was surprising, given we are close to the bottom. This certainly calls into question (moreso than already) the wisdom of the bedroom tax and the other harsh cuts to social security. Incidentally, if you aren’t marching against the bedroom tax in Glasgow or Edinburgh, you probably need to question what you would March against.

That said, the relatively high level of debt that we are exposed to within the UK does highlight George Osborne’s lack of options in terms of levers to pull to boost growth. We are, whichever way you want to look at it, in a bit of a pickle relative to other countries out there and I don’t envy Osborne the task ahead of him tomorrow.

The one area where we are top of the pops is Defence, the only area of spending that has no direct impact on quality of life at a civic level. I admit I was surprised that this level of spending is low in absolute terms relative to other government expenditure but it’s clear that this is where there is the greatest scope for savings, our budget’s area of least resistance if you like.

Reducing the £46bn cost of Defence to German levels would save £21.2bn/year, to Swedish levels £24.8bn/year and to Irish levels £35.4bn/year. That’s an expensive set of nuclear weapons that will never be fired and a pricey permanent seat on the UN Security Council. How many nursery place could those savings pay for? Cuts to this budget don’t even necessarily have to involve significant job losses given the £46bn works out at a massive £670k per person employed by the MoD.

Achieving Sweden’s success by investing more in our children than in weapons can be achieved in two ways, spending more on childcare or spending less on other areas, like Defence. Maybe it’s time we gave the latter a go.

Lists of countries ranked by various spending, employment and debt:

Education (%age of GDP)
Denmark – 7.8%
Iceland – 7.4%
Norway – 6.8%
Sweden – 6.6%
Belgium – 6.0%
Finland – 5.9%
France – 5.6%
UK – 5.5%
Austria – 5.4%
Netherlands – 5.3%
Portugal – 5.2%
Ireland – 4.9%
Germany – 4.5%
Italy – 4.3%
Spain – 4.3%

Defence (%age of GDP)
UK – 2.6%
France – 2.3%
Portugal – 2.1%
Italy – 1.7%
Norway – 1.5%
Finland – 1.5%
Germany – 1.4%
Denmark – 1.4%
Netherlands – 1.4%
Belgium – 1.2%
Sweden – 1.2%
Spain – 1.0%
Austria – 0.9%
Ireland – 0.6%
Iceland – 0.1%

Health (%age of GDP)
Netherlands – 12.0%
France – 11.9%
Germany – 11.7%
Denmark – 11.5%
Austria – 11.0%
Belgium – 10.8%
Portugal – 10.7%
Sweden – 10.0%
UK – 9.8%
Iceland – 9.8%
Norway – 9.7%
Spain – 9.6%
Italy – 9.4%
Ireland – 9.4%
Finland – 9.0%

Public Social Expenditure (incl Health) (%age of GDP)
France – 32.1%
Denmark – 30.5%
Belgium – 30.0%
Finland – 29.0%
Austria – 28.3%
Sweden – 28.2%
Italy – 28.1%
Spain – 26.3%
Germany – 26.3%
Portugal – 25.0%
Netherlands – 24.3%
UK – 23.9%
Ireland – 23.1%
Norway – 22.1%
Iceland – 16.4%

Pensions (%age of GDP)
Italy – 15.4%
France – 13.7%
Austria – 13.5%
Portugal – 12.3%
Germany – 11.3%
Belgium – 10.0%
Finland – 9.9%
Spain – 9.3%
Sweden – 8.2%
UK – 6.2%
Denmark – 6.1%
Norway – 5.4%
Ireland – 5.1%
Netherlands – 5.1%
Iceland – 1.7%

Italy – 126.3%
Portugal – 119.1%
Ireland – 117.7%
Belgium – 99.0%
Iceland – 94.1%
Spain – 90.7%
France – 90.0%
UK – 88.7%
Germany – 83.0%
Austria – 74.3%
Netherlands – 68.2%
Finland – 52.6%
Norway – 49.6%
Denmark – 47.1%
Sweden – 37.1%

Employment Rate
Iceland – 78.2%
Norway – 75.3%
Netherlands – 74.7%
Denmark – 73.4%
Sweden – 72.7%
Austria – 71.7%
Germany – 71.1%
UK – 69.5%
Finland – 68.1%
Portugal – 65.2%
France – 64.0%
Belgium – 62.0%
Ireland – 60.0%
Spain – 58.6%
Italy – 56.9%

SNP to call for Holyrood control over defence, security and foreign policy at 2012 Autumn Conference

I have been thinking for a while that the SNP needed to seize the initiative to get their not-quite-floundering-but-not-quite-fizzing independence referendum campaign off the ground. Thoughts that I personally have had included announcing that an independent Scotland would disband all private schools and/or would renationalise the railways. Something that would put clear blue water between an independent Scotland’s future and that of the United Kingdom’s.

Well, the SNP has made their move, though it’s not anything that I had seen coming…

The Scottish National Party (SNP) has confirmed that delegates attending its Annual Conference in October 2012 will debate an updated defence policy presented by Westminster SNP Leader and defence spokesman Angus Robertson. The resolution proposed by the Moray MP and seconded by Angus MacNeil MP follows a detailed review process which has included input from throughout the SNP, involved external experts and has been informed by discussions in neighbouring countries.

Amongst the key elements of the policy proposals are:

That the Scottish Parliament and Scottish Government should determine defence, security and foreign policy.

An SNP government should allocate an increased budget to conventional defence in Scotland compared to the UK but will make substantial savings by ending support for nuclear weapons which will be withdrawn from Scotland.

A professional defence force of 15,000 regular and 5,000 reserve personnel, including restored Scottish infantry regiments will increase the current conventional footprint in Scotland. All military bases will remain in operation with Faslane becoming a major conventional naval base and home to Joint Forces Headquarters. Lossiemouth and Leuchars will both operate air force capabilities.

Scotland will inherit its international treaty obligations including those with the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and will remain a member, subject to agreement on withdrawal of Trident from Scotland.

Gentlemen, start your engines. If this isn’t upping the ante in the stakes for independence then I don’t know what is and it will guarantee that the momentum and the impetus swings back into the SNP’s favour. Debating whether the fossil fuel levy and control over air guns should come to Scotland was all well and good but this is big game hunting that Angus Robertson and Angus MacNeil are going for at (and in the run up to) the SNP’s Autumn Conference (Perth, Oct 18th-21st). The Scottish public, I reckon, will be sympathetic to the arguments being made as it would allow greater control over the location of Trident, greater control over the forces under threat within Scotland, greater scope to make savings that are foregone at Westminster and provide the opportunity to swell the powers at Holyrood and test the Scottish Parliament one level further.

The official confirmation that the SNP will seek to remain a part of Nato under independence is no less significant despite how expected it has come to be these past months. The opposition will try to poke fun at this u-turn and suggest generously that SNP members should be outraged, but it was always a sensible step towards the civic (as opposed to radical) nationalism that Alex Salmond has pushed for in his long tenure as leader.

The specific wording of the resolution being proposed can be read on the Moray SNP website.

Come on Dave, let’s haggle

UK Minister Nick Harvey (why do so many coalition Ministers sound like posh shops?) floated the idea yesterday that a post-independence Scotland might tolerate handing over Faslane to the rump UK so they can continue their nefarious and implausibly expensive nuclear hobbies unhindered. The comparison was made to Guantanamo, America’s torture base on Cuba by disputed permanent lease.

It’s no wonder UK Ministers are considering it, too: the costs of decommissioning would be enormous (and UK Ministers want Scots to bear a proportion: thanks, but no), and as was reported earlier this year, there is no plausible English, Welsh or Northern Irish base for Trident and any post-Trident subs.

Pleasing as it is to see the coalition taking independence seriously, many Scots inside and outside the SNP think this sounds about perfect. We chuck Trident out and Westminster has nowhere to put it. An independent Scotland would be able to do what Scotland has never achieved within the Union: deliver a disarmed British Isles. And obviously that’s my preference too. What a great first contribution as an independent nation that would be.

That having been said, how daft is the exclave idea? They’re surprisingly common around the world. Some are exclaves within exclaves. The map above shows, amongst other things, an Indian exclave within a Pakistani exclave within an Indian exclave within Pakistan. It’d be like leaving Faslane within the UK, but keeping the mess-hall Scottish, except the kitchen, which’d also be part of the UK. Let’s not do that.

But if we did for some reason have to swallow this unpleasant idea, it’d also be a massive bargaining chip. What would it be worth to the rump UK to be able to keep its massive penis substitute afloat? As I found myself discussing with a Labour-supporting friend this morning, perhaps we could swap it for a bit of England or Wales? Berwick-upon-Tweed is a bit obvious, and besides they’ll probably join an independent Scotland of their own accord at some point anyway.

We agreed that some sun and sea might be nice, but that Blackpool was maybe not far enough south to get best value. Bournemouth might be an easier ask than Brighton, perhaps, although Brighton is as far as I know the only part of England to have been represented by an SNP Councillor. Perhaps they’d vote to join us: we wouldn’t want just to annex them, after all.

Given the multi-billion pound value of this theoretical swap, though, why not aim high? There are a fair few Cornish who would like to be independent: perhaps we could invite them to join an alternative union across the British Isles? Maybe the Welsh would feel happier partnering with us at that point too..

Scotland’s non-existent nuclear weapons problem

The long trailed, looming decision by the SNP to reverse its policy regarding NATO in favour of Scottish membership has deprived many a unionist of one of its last remaining sticks with which to beat the Nationalists. The disappointment is palpable and no more so in the weekend’s Scotland on Sunday where Salmond’s supposed ‘NATO and nukes dilemma’ was splashed across the front page.

The argument, from Professor Malcolm Chalmers(?), seems to be that NATO won’t let an independent Scotland join its club if Scotland cleared nuclear weapons from its military bases.

The main article, and the accompanying editorial, involve telling Scots that you can’t be free of nuclear weapons and be a member of NATO in the short to medium term in an independent Scotland, and trying to make it the SNP’s problem at the same time. One initial oddity of this positioning is that opposition to nuclear weapons and membership of NATO are solid, historic Labour policies, and if there was one party that should be motivated to find a solution here it would be Labour. A solution over and above ‘let’s just stay in the UK shall we’. Lord George Robertson, former MP for Hamilton South, was recently the NATO Secretary General after all. Couldn’t he be expected to find a solution to this supposed impasse in the interests of Scotland?

Anyway, the article is difficult to take too seriously for separate reasons.

Post independence, on the one side, we would have a centre-right Government keen to ensure that rUK’s place in the geopolitical game remains strong and that the ‘special relationship’ with America stays tight. Underpinning each of these objectives is the requirement to retain a permanent seat at the United Nations. In order to ensure this, rUK needs to be a nuclear power. On the other side we have Scotland, a new country whose citizens have historically been opposed to holding nuclear weapons and led by a centre-left party (or parties) that have no appetite for paying for or holding nuclear weapons within their budgets or borders.

rUK wants nuclear weapons, Scotland doesn’t. There is no problem here. There may be an issue surrounding the timing of the physical move of nuclear weapons from Scotland to rUK but the weapons will always be operable and available to NATO if the simply unimaginable becomes reality.

Furthermore, it is not in rUK’s, or the USA’s, or France’s, or Russia’s interests for Scotland to have control over nuclear weapons. The smaller that club is, the better. There are good reasons after all why the many countries across Europe that successfully researched such weapons never actually created any.

I have always believed it is inconceivable that England, Wales or Northern Ireland cannot have a base for nuclear weapons ready in a matter of years, if it isn’t ready now. If this is indeed true then it is a dereliction of duty on the part of Westminster to have kept such supposedly strategically important weapons in a nation that (1) might leave the UK, (2) has never wanted the weapons in the first place and (3) should have been covered by a back-up location via a disaster recovery contingency plan.

So why this is all Scotland’s problem is beyond me. Indeed, it sounds more like an opportunity. Scotland could command a large price for keeping Trident where it is, and that doesn’t sound like bad news for Alex Salmond or an argument against independence to me.

The alternative of course is to simply scrap Trident, a decision that the coalition baulked at during this Parliamentary term. There is simply no conceivable scenario when these bombs would be fired, no country or state in the world that would deserve such horrors to be rained down upon it. So why keep holding these weapons? If they have served their purpose strategically, and run out of options geographically, let’s just put the whole thing to bed and save ourselves billions that we can build schools with, no?

Well, if it wasn’t for the permanent seat at the UN and that sordid special relationship, we might just manage to do that. Again, it’s not Scotland that wants to cling onto a seat at the big boy’s table, so why are people making it an issue for the Scottish independence referendum?

Experts can be dug up to provide front page exclusives and national newspapers can wring their hands in their editorials, but imagining problems that don’t exist or turning opportunities into issues for partisan reasons is not going to get Scotland anywhere.

Is independent Scotland’s foreign policy already in place?

The Scottish Parliament is a devolved body and is answerable to the UK Parliament, a Parliament that has reserved powers over the constitution, defence, treason, the funding of political parties and international relations.

Of these reserved powers, it is Defence and International Relations that have been the focus of attention as many of the SNP’s opponents seek to suggest that foreign policy in an independent Scotland is somewhere between unworkable and unpalatable.

It’s not often that political parties communicate through actions rather than words but, if one looks around, it’s quite possible that the SNP’s view of what an independent Scotland’s foreign policy would be has already been put into practice.

There is the low hanging fruit of how an independent Scotland would look of course – Scotland inside the EU, quite possibly no nuclear weapons and we’d have the Queen as Head of State but let’s look at some examples of an existing Scottish foreign policy that many may not have noticed:

The Scottish Government is already promoting the development of a sub-sea electricity transmission super grid with Norway, Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, assisted by several visits to Norway by the First Minister. (Incidentally, no UK Prime Minister has visited Norway in 25 years)

The SNP is considering the economic and military changes that the melting ice caps bring and is seeking to work alongside the countries that have seen this challenge as a top priority for a while now – Iceland, Faroe Islands, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Canada etc. This is not an area that the UK has dedicated much attention, if any.

Scotland could and should join the Nordic Council if it does become independent. The SNP regularly talk up membership, Alex Salmond mentioned it in his recent Hugo Young lecture, and Lesley Riddoch has an excellent piece exploring Scotland potentially joining.

Alex Salmond’s visits to China and Abu Dhabi bore the hallmarks of state visits and would be much the same as visits from a Scottish Prime Minister.

One issue that many claim remains outstanding is how Scotland would defend itself if independent. For me, there is an easy solution to this and we only need to look to other similarly-sized, anti-nuclear countries for it. Norway is leading calls for Nato to be nuclear-free while still enjoy the security of full membership. The SNP simply needs to change its policy on Nato, if it hasn’t already, and a clear picture of how an independent Scotland could look in an international context is locked into place. I maintain that the SNP changing tack on Nato is a no-brainer.

The image that most people have in mind when it comes to Scotland defending itself is an attack on our airpsace and how we would unilaterally action a defence. And yet, the current ‘Quick Reaction Alert‘ system (involving scrambling fighter jets to intercept unidentified aircraft) is already split into North Britain (from Leuchars) and South Britain (from Lincolnshire). Contact is then made from HQ to Nato allies, typically via Denmark. Would the system work any differently under an independent Scotland, particularly if the north-south divide already exists?

The SNP will be launching its Preparation Prospectus soon but don’t be too surprised if its contents look familiar. We are surrounded by similar-sized prosperous countries who have the means and the alliances to defend themselves. Scotland isn’t just well placed to join those same alliances and create the same means, it is doing so already.