Exploring Scottish National Security

Exploring Scottish National Security

In late February, PaCCS Communications Officer Kate McNeil sat down with Dr Andrew Neal Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations and Co-Director of the Centre for Security Research (CeSeR) at the University of Edinburgh to discuss his work exploring Scottish national security in the lead-up to the 2014 Scottish independence referendum. His work resulted in the book Security in a Small Nation: Scotland, Democracy, Politics which is available online.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and concision.

Kate McNeil: Thank you for taking the time to speak with me today! Would you mind getting started by telling me a little bit about your career thus far, and how you ended up working on Scottish security issues?

Dr Andrew Neal: I began my PhD a week after 9/11 happened, and that event really shaped the early stages of my career. My PhD work was a theoretical exploration of the war on terror and executive security powers, and I ended up publishing on that topic for about a decade. Over the course of that period, I became more interested in the human dimension of these security issues.

Over the last number of years, security has crept into many new areas of social and political life. In the security field we’ve been historically a bit isolated from our political science cousins, in the sense that traditionally security fell exclusively within the domain of international relations scholars, while political scientists focused on bread and butter domestic policy issues. That divided legacy still shapes the state of the two disciplines today, but as I watched securitized discourse pop up in new places, it became clear to me that the internal/external divide between domestic and international politics no longer applies neatly to the study of security. So, in the 2010s, I started looking into parliamentary politics, and then the prospect of Scottish independence appeared on the horizon. I was already doing work on the Westminster parliament and national security, so examining the implications of independence upon Scottish national security seemed like a natural extension of that work.

Going into that project, what were you trying to achieve?

Initially, my plan was to look at the politics of security in the four nations that comprise the United Kingdom, but I soon learned that the security situations in each are so different that it just didn’t hang together. Westminster is so much bigger institutionally than the centres of governance in the other three nations, Wales doesn’t do very much with national security, and Northern Ireland is such a specific case that it would be very difficult to generate generalizable research.

However, Scottish security was one of those issues that people were clearly interested in. The study of Scottish politics that many of my colleagues work onis mostly concerned with domestic issues and is dominated by political scientists. And because Scotland isn’t a sovereign state, its security wasn’t really on the radar of international relations scholars either. So, there was very little expertise on Scottish security, and I saw a gap in our understanding that I could potentially help fill.

How did you go about trying to fill that gap?

We received funding from the ESRC for a seminar series which brought together a team of academics and people from the policy world who participate in national security debates including current and former civil servants from both Scotland and Whitehall, people from Westminster, and former diplomats.

We held a number of seminars that focused on different dimensions of Scottish national security, including foreign policy and defence. We tried to organise events around different stages in the referendum process, so that we could have the most informed discussion possible.

Throughout the referendum process, both the Scottish and UK governments published policy documents that were relevant to our work and which influenced our discussion. This included a Scottish government white paper as thick as a telephone book setting out comprehensive policies for how an independent Scotland would work. The UK government published a series of Scotland Analysis papers, two of which were very relevant for us – one on defence, and another on a broader view of security. The former of these touched on topics including military bases and Trident, but the latter document was especially interesting because it was an accounting of every bit of the British state that arguably dealt with security. I don’t think that an account like that had ever been complied before, and it’s a document I still think is worth a read. It included an accounting of things such as the military, intelligence services, police, and all sorts of interesting sub agencies, departments and institutions such as the Financial Intelligence Unit, the police kidnapping unit, and centres for national infrastructure protection . That document demonstrated the enormous institutional footprint of what could be included in conversations about the UK’s and Scotland’s security apparatus.

How did the timing of the Scottish referendum fit in with your study?

The independence referendum happened about two thirds of the way through our project, and at the time Scotland was the centre of an enormous amount of international attention. We were lucky to have a real opportunity to inform the public debate. There were journalists everywhere, and we were doing interviews with Mexican TV, the Turkish press, and practically every international media organisation you can imagine.

If the referendum had resulted in a yes vote, I think that our research and findings would have been in much greater demand, because we would have been able to help address questions concerning what Scottish independence from a national security perspective might involve or look like.

The no vote meant that Scottish independence stopped being at the top of peoples minds before our research had concluded, so our final seminar session reflect on the aftermath of the referendum and whether there would be any security implications from the constitutional changes that followed. There weren’t really, so at that point we thought we were done, and that our work would largely be a historical artefact, albeit one that brought policymakers and academics together for an important series of discussions. Then, as we were about to publish our book on the project, literally as we were doing the final edits, the unexpected Brexit referendum ’leave’ vote happened. So, we relect a little bit in the book about what that might mean, and now that Scottish independence hasn’t gone away as a prospect, the research we’ve done might need to be revisited again if there is a second referendum.

Were there things you learned during this research that surprised you, or that you thought were particularly important lessons?

One of the conclusions we reached about a planned transition to Scottish independence was that the 18-month transition plan just wouldn’t be possible. Trying to untangle security institutions and government institutions in that short time span just wasn’t feasible. This kind of disentanglement process requires very long transition periods, ongoing connections between the two parties, and the correct institutional support structures. Looking at the Brexit process, I think we can be vindicated in that conclusion. The process of disentangling the UK from the EU is proving unbelievably complicated, and a separation of Scotland from the UK would be even worse.

Many of those involved in our project also pointed out that small states are more limited in their security choices compared to bigger states. They tend to be at the mercy of other powers, in the sense that they often have to seek formal cooperation and alliances. The Brexit experience is thus far, once again, vindicating that conclusion. The UK can’t necessarily rely on NATO or the US the way it historically thought it could, and the UK government is now rethinking the idea that it will only ever fight wars that the US fights. All of those things would apply to an independent Scotland as well. A smaller state, cut loose, would have some choices about its ties, but it makes you question what independence really means. Independent from what? Independent to do what? If you cut yourself loose from one set of arrangements, there is always the possibility that will reduce, rather than increase, your options.

Did you learn anything about the EU’s security footprint over the course of this study?

We invited experts from a lot of EU countries, particularly smaller states such as Finland, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Denmark, to talk about their security arrangements. We wanted to know whether an independent Scotland could model itself on those systems. Throughout that process, we learned that unlike the UK’s tripartite system of independent intelligence services, most small European countries’ intelligence services are extensions of their police and military. We thought that would be the route an independent Scotland would probably follow too.

In terms of the EU itself, EU security is complicated because there are so many non-traditional agencies, databases and capabilities which are significant, but are a little bit overlooked because they don’t look like classical defence or intelligence agencies. Here in the UK we tend to think about the Five Eyes and NATO, but UK-EU security cooperation in policing goes back decades, and I think that’s an area that would merit further research, particularly if Scotland left the UK and re-joined the EU.

There’s also an interesting discussion to be had about what the EU could contribute to the security of an independent Scotland, and what the UK is losing by leaving the EU. We still don’t know which bits of EU security cooperation the UK is going to remain a part of.

As part of this research project, you created the Centre for Security Research at the University of Edinburgh. What’s that centre doing now?

The centre is still an active and successful hub for security expertise in Scotland. We run several events a year, we are in the process for applying for grants for a few new projects, and we do a lot of work on building networks. This summer our annual conference will be on parliaments and security, and has attracted participants from all over the world.

One of the main aims of the centre is to maintain our network of security experts who are interested in Scotland, so that we have a way to reconnect in case of Scottish independence. We’re also working to build a Scottish security network for MSc students at Edinburgh, St Andrew’s and Glasgow, and we bring those students together each year to discuss their own research.

Beyond that, we’ve also been doing more work to link up research within universities and security networks. There are people within Scottish academic institutions working on topics like global health, pandemics and cybersecurity. These topics are all relevant to security, but historically they wouldn’t have been viewed as having links, and this work would have been seen as outside the foreign policy and international relations silos which dominated security discourse. So, we’re working to broaden that discourse and connect people working in different areas of this broader security umbrella.

And what are you working on these days?

Last year, I published my book, Security as Politics: Beyond the State of Exception. I’d worked on that project throughout the 2010s. The resulting book, designed to be accessible to both policymakers and academics, is a comprehensive review of Westminster politics and parliamentary engagement with national security issues since the 1980s.

Now that I’m finishing up that parliamentary research, I’ve got some comparative work ahead of me. I’ll be publishing some work comparing UK and Australia’s parliamentary security politics , and then I’ll be starting a new project on comparative national security strategies. This builds off my previous work but taking it to a truly global scale. I want to explore which countries are publishing public national security documents, how these documents are changing, what’s in them, and what sorts of things states see as security threats – including non-traditional security threats such as climate change or pandemics.. I’m hoping that project will keep me occupied for the next few years! 

Photo Credit: Tom Parnell, Dirleton Castle –