If you ever travel from Peterhead to Fraserburgh, you will pass through Crimond. You might know the village if you live up this way, hardly otherwise. Just back down the road towards Peterhead is the St Fergus gas terminal, Aberdeenshire’s equivalent to the Grangemouth oil refinery; even closer to Crimond is RSPB Loch of Strathbeg, popular with birdwatchers.
Loch of Strathbeg is a wildlife site of international importance and aside from the birds, it is home to a herd of Konik horses, bred to mimic the sturdiness of ancient, feral ponies. Seeing them graze out on the wetland gives the locale a curiously ancient feel. With the Koniks in view, visitors might be forgiven for thinking they were simultaneously looking out over the reserve and back in time. One sideways glance shatters the illusion, sadly, as the enormous radio masts of the adjacent DHFCS Crimond rise higher than Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh.
So much for antique fauna... hello modern defence infrastructure.
DHFCS Crimond is part of the UK’s defence high frequency communications service, built on a former Royal Navy air station, active during World War Two. Wikipedia says that this service is a beyond-line-of-sight communication system operated by the Ministry of Defence with half a dozen transmitting and receiving stations across England and Scotland. The two Scottish sites are just outside Crimond and at Kinloss Barracks in Moray, home to the British Army’s 39 Engineer Regiment. Next door to Kinloss is RAF Lossiemouth, one of only two quick reaction alert stations on the island of Britain – the other is in Lincolnshire. When Russian aircraft come nosing around the North Sea, Typhoons from RAF Lossiemouth are scrambled to keep an eye on them. Meanwhile, back in Aberdeenshire, but on the other side of Peterhead from Crimond, you find RRH Buchan, a discreet remote radar station.
Given most discussion about Scottish independence and defence focuses on nuclear submarines on the Clyde, the other UK military facilities dotted about Scotland are sometimes lost in the background noise. But a quick tour of Aberdeenshire and Moray alone – with the adornment of Konik horses or without – shows that Scotland hosts some key components of the UK’s overall defence capability. And if Scotland became independent? All these facilities would suddenly be outwith UK sovereign territory.
This poses an enormous problem for the British defence establishment and government whether or not a future independent Scotland chose to run these facilities as part of its own defence structure, in liaison with the British armed forces, or via some other option.
The Losing End
Aside from military considerations, other effects of Scottish independence on the UK are arguably more important, well attested and have caused rancour for many years: the loss of control over hydrocarbons and renewables, both current and the potential for their future development; the significant reduction in the UK’s landmass and sea area; the loss of fisheries, freshwater resources during a climate crisis and much more besides. The consequences for the UK in terms of defence, economics, international standing and reputation could be grave and there has even been speculation that if HMNB Clyde had to be moved, or the UK’s nuclear capability even shelved after Scotland’s secession from the union, then the loss of the UK’s permanent seat on the UN Security Council, held since the 1940s, could follow.
The takeaway is that Scottish independence would be devastating for Great Britain. Or in bolder terms, there would no longer be a Great Britain; a diminished England would have a northern border for the first time in the modern era.
The fight for independence is not just about democracy or fairness in Scotland. The bigger issue in realpolitik terms is the survival of the UK in its current form – and no British prime minister in their right mind would ever grant a section 30 order allowing for an independence referendum north of the border unless they were utterly convinced they would win. Cue David Cameron and his period of enthusiasm for referendums between 2011 and 2016 which carries a lesson in itself.
Cameron never had the populist touch of Margaret Thatcher or Tony Blair. He led the Conservatives into the 2010 general election and won 306 seats at Westminster but needed the Liberal Democrats to prop him up as prime minister. Part of the deal with the LibDems was a referendum on a fairer voting system – the Alternative Vote or AV referendum – held in 2011. Conservative and Labour politicians campaigned on both sides, the pro-AV people failed to capture the public imagination, turnout was low and a fairer voting system for UK elections was firmly rejected.
Confidence buoyed by having played one, won one, Cameron dealt with the SNP’s 2011 majority Scottish election win by negotiating another referendum. It is important to remember though that by early 2012 the pro-independence position was only polling between 32 and 38 per cent in Scotland, 53 out of 59 Scottish seats at Westminster were held by unionist parties, plus the entire British political establishment was against Scotland leaving the UK. Cameron thought the risk was manageable.
The result of 55/45 was doubtless closer than he expected, and the final weeks of the campaign surely caused him some degree of panic, but from his point of view it was played two, won two, albeit the outcome hardly put the issue to bed.
Cameron then went on to success in the 2015 general election with a very slim overall majority, bringing him another five years as prime minister, or so he thought. He had for some time planned to buy off the Eurosceptic wing of his own party – and deal with the electoral success of UKIP – with a third referendum, this time on the UK’s membership of the EU. In June 2016 when the UK voted for Brexit, 52/48, his luck ran out, he had no option but to resign, sorely curtailing his time in the top job.
The AV referendum did kick the idea of a fairer voting system for UK elections into the long grass and helped keep the Conservatives in power for five years; the 2014 referendum kept Scotland in the union but brought independence under scrutiny as never before, galvanised the yes vote and saw the SNP emerge as Scotland’s main party at Westminster; the Brexit referendum was a complete failure and ended Cameron’s tenure at 10 Downing Street.
Subsequent British prime ministers can see that referendums are a high-wire way to solve an immediate problem, far from consequence-free and quite capable of destroying your career. Specifically, a yes vote in a Scottish independence referendum would also mean the end of the UK. In retrospect, it makes the hope for a constitutional route to a second referendum seem rather forlorn. On one side of the scales, you have the United Kingdom fighting to survive as a nation state, run by the Conservatives for 31 out of the last 44 years – on the other side you have the notion that self-determination would be a positive step forward for Scotland. We are outweighed and the power is in London.
A Little Bit Of History Repeating
We voted no to independence in September 2014 but within nine months elected 53 SNP MPs to the House of Commons. Just over a year later we voted no to Brexit albeit the UK voted yes, but no one knew what Brexit was because there was no plan. By the time there was a plan, or at least a shape, at the end of 2020 when Boris Johnson signed the Trade and Cooperation Agreement with the EU, we were well into an unprecedented global pandemic. Come May 2021, we had a majority pro-indy Scottish government and into 2022 the Covid lockdowns and restrictions fell away. In November 2022 however, the UK Supreme Court said that Holyrood did not have the legal competence to call an independence referendum on its own. Every British prime minister, or aspiring prime minister, since Cameron has said no and for reasons already outlined, it is apparent why they would never gamble again on saying yes. The question of whether or not Starmer might, in exchange for SNP support in a hung parliament next year, remains moot. Putting all your eggs in the one basket that doesn’t currently exist is not a strategy, more an opportunity to be seized if and when.
The months since last November’s Supreme Court decision seem to have passed in a kind of dispirited winter daze, made much worse by the SNP’s extraordinary own-goal in terms of internal party governance that brought so much negative media coverage as well as relentless attacks from unionists. But clarity is important and at the very least we now have clarity.
It is hard to see another section 30 order ever being granted. Brexit, which Scotland rejected, is damaging and dysfunctional and its effects will get worse. The Scottish government and 81 per cent of Scottish MPs may be pro-independence but the fact that this is “not a mandate” dramatises the problem.
The post-2014 approach through Brexit, Covid, all the way to the Supreme Court in London, has run its course. We can now either give up, or get on the front foot – and in case of any ambiguity read into this conclusion, Alex Salmond is the past, not the future.
More next month…