Cutting the ties that bind? Intelligence in an Independent ScotlandBy Robert Dover on 4 November 2013
There are many contentious issues that currently seem intractable or ‘too difficult’ for an independent Scotland. Intelligence and security issues are one of these and look – on the face of it – to be too difficult to solve in a reasonable timeframe. The biggest barrier for a prospective independent Scotland is that it will be a supplicant party seeking to do something a stronger Westminster government is opposed to: no enthusiastic vision will just ‘make it happen’. The Government’s report published last week and the comments of the Home Secretary in launching it show very clearly that the Westminster government are not prepared to be flexible or accommodating on intelligence and security. From this position, the only realistic argument there is for maintaining the UK security umbrella over Scotland is if the assessed risk of Scotland being used as a base for threats is large, and the Scottish authorities are unable to identify, contain and roll-back these threats themselves. Short of these extreme circumstances, the Westminster government has given a very strong steer to the Scottish voters that under circumstances of independence they are on their own, in a world where the assessed risks, complex and even peaceable small nations are not immune.
The need for intelligence
In the 1990s there was an emergent literature around the utility of armed force in the modern era. The predominant arguments ran that armed forces were too expensive, and the threats the western world faced were not existential enough to justify the expenditure that doing this activity properly demands. The argument of the SNP and the pro-independence group is akin to this. They say that the independent Scotland will neither be looking to conduct invasions, nor will it be exercising muscular activity on the international stage. By adopting a lower-profile than its excitable cousin south of the border it will not generate the sort of adverse interest from adversaries that necessitates a large intelligence infrastructure. This might be partly true. However, proximity to that excitable southern cousin might well still attract the attention of unpleasant factions keen to take advantage of a less invasive form of security and surveillance to conduct activities of one sort or another. The other element worth noting here is that intelligence is not just about defending turf and citizens from direct threats, it is also about the subtle strategic positioning of the state in the international sphere. The US National Security Agency has been making large and lurid headlines recently around these very activities – the alleged interception of Chancellor Merkel’s mobile phone would have been all about understanding how Germany was positioning itself in relation to other states, and then refracted through the prism of US interest. A tiny intelligence apparatus will not be able to provide an independent Scotland with anything like the tools required for this job.
The problem of resourcing
Intelligence is as price sensitive as any other area of governmental activity. The technology used by intelligence officers is subject to additional inflationary pressures associated with high-end research and development activities (particularly in the area of signals and electronic intelligence where a large percentage of security and enforcement information comes from), and the price of officers is not just limited to their salary, on-costs and desk space, but their on-going professional development too. The cost-benefit analysis that one might run about any human resource will steadily be offset as the individual becomes more experienced and can be trusted to make sound judgements more often, and to take leadership roles on and so forth. So, one of the key problems with an independent intelligence capability for Scotland is staffing it. Those who have worked for the unified Crown will face a large number of impediments before they could work for a Scottish agency, the rest of the UK would not want that institutional memory and experience base sat in an agency beyond their control. And rightly so. The Scottish intelligence apparatus would face the steep transaction costs of needing to prove itself to be a reliable provider of quality intelligence and also a reliable place for foreign intelligence information to reside (in other words, to be immune from leaks). This would take time, and it is not clear to me that an independent Scottish intelligence apparatus would be allowed into the privileged circle of the ‘Five-Eyes’ of close working intelligence nations the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, which acts as a substantial tool of knowledge multiplication for those nations. And that’s without the problem of generating sufficient scale to be an effective intelligence actor in the first place. It should be noted that UK government currently spends around £2bn a year on intelligence and cyber security activities, whilst the Scottish government plans to spend £2.5bn a year on these activity and defence, indicating a problem of scaling up to these challenges.
The enemy within (or without)
An independent Scotland, cut off from the intelligence apparatus of the United Kingdom would find itself as one of the targets of UK intelligence activity. Despite the difficulties of the recent headlines for President Obama it is clear that allies have always spied on allies: it is partly how they know that they are still allies. An independent Scotland might easily become a harbouring point for Jihadists, or for terrorists from Northern Ireland, but even if that sounds fanciful to pro-independence campaigners, it would be remiss of the remaining parts of the UK not to be constantly checking and vigilant to assess those risks. So, it is partly because intelligence is a field of activity that is borne of a central premise of mistrust that Scotland would find itself moving from being inside the UK’s intelligence community to very quickly being the object of its attentions. That should not be surprising, nor upsetting, it is a fundamental facet of the activity and of the obligation the state has to its citizens, and its core interests.
In the move to an independent Scotland there will be a large number of difficult issues to be tackled. Intelligence is one of the more difficult areas to map in advance, precisely because there will be little in the way of legacy or transitional activity to smooth the way. South African intelligence officers moved their intelligence community from apartheid to rainbow nation at a faster pace than other areas of government precisely because they recognised the importance of not leaving a vacuum in this area of government activity. The signalling from Westminster is that all ties will be cut: ‘you’ll be on your own’. If a vote for independence comes to pass the situation will of course be more nuanced than this: UK security will demand that there is not a vacuum for adversaries to operate in north of the border. The risk for the Scots will however be that they quickly will become as dependent on the rest of the UK for intelligence expertise as the UK is on the US, with all the political consequences that come with that.
Robert Dover is Senior Lecturer in International Relations, and Associate Dean (Enterprise) at Loughborough University in London.
Image: Dave McLear CC BY