Sizing up the situation

Ross Colquhoun, formerly of National Collective and one of many campaigners who were swallowed up by the SNP machine after Scotland said No Thanks, tweeted this graphic today:

You can see me in GERS, too!

Ross helpfully added, “This map from the BBC provides an interesting perspective of Scotland’s land and maritime boundaries.  Scotland small?” which inevitably prompted replies from fervent nationalist tweeters that there was more oil to be “bled dry”, and that it was now obvious why we needed to be kept “institutionalised in the UK”.  Repeat to yawn inducing, Groundhog Day fade.  But what does the graphic actually show?

U.K. EEZ, innit

The UK’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) defines the sea zone around the British Isles over which the UK has special rights regarding exploration and use of marine resources.  These resources including animal, vegetable, and mineral… anything really that humans could exploit to their advantage, be it for food or energy consumption.  The United Nations Convention on the Law Of The Sea (UNCLOS) determines how an EEZ is defined, and importantly how it is delineated between neighbouring sovereign states.  As Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland are internationally recognised together as the UK, the theoretical borders defined in the first graphic are essentially meaningless.  It is the UK’s EEZ that matters when it comes to marine resources, and critically when it comes to strategic defence and protection of those resources.

If Scotland chose to separate from the UK, she would have an EEZ pretty much as defined in that first graphic.  That confers rights over all the marine resources in that zone, as well as the responsibility to defend and protect that area.  With regards to defence, it’s currently unclear what the SNP are proposing.  The defence plan put forward in Scotland’s Future seemed eminently reasonable to me but that is now to be ditched, we are told (http://www.dailyrecord.co.uk/news/politics/snp-plan-revamp-out-date-10049162).  This is where size does matter – unless Scotland were to turn more of its spending over to defence, it would find itself patrolling a proportionately much larger EEZ and coastline with significantly less naval or air power.  The coastline aspect may surprise some, but Scotland’s rugged glaciated landscape means the mainland alone has a coastal length of just over 6,000 miles (the UK mainland’s coastal length is just over 11,000 miles).  Add in the coastal length of the Scottish islands and it’s clear that size matters – patrolling this area would indeed require a bespoke solution.  But given the deficit problems caused by the fall in crude oil prices, it is increasingly difficult to see an increase in short or mid term defence spending in a separate Scotland; if anything it is likely to fall.

But aren’t you saving on me?

Indeed.  The removal of Trident would save about £280m a year, out of Scotland’s share of UK defence spending which is £3bn.  But would this be spent on enhancing a separate Scotland’s coastal defence capability?  We don’t know, because as already stated SNP plans are up in the air.  It will be interesting to see where they come down.  And in any case, aren’t we frequently told that Trident savings would help close a separate Scotland’s deficit?  I find it hugely unlikely that Trident savings would have any upward effect on conventional defence spending, regardless of the constitutional question.  So this issue of proportionate size would still need addressing.

Where this new found size doesn’t matter however, is with regards to the public finances.  A proportionately larger EEZ does not mean proportionately larger government revenues.  The Scottish Government’s GERS report has for many years provided public sector accounts for Scotland which rely on the graphic Ross Colquhoun tweeted to define Scotland’s geographical share of the UK’s oil and gas production, and the revenues associated with it.  GERS helpfully now includes the same graphic, though given Ross’s MP and MSP colleagues are currently on a mission to trash GERS veracity and credibility, maybe it’ll disappear from the next edition.  The purpose of tweets such as Ross’s (he is an SNP strategist after all) is to convince people that the vast tract of waters forming a separate Scotland’s EEZ would bring with it a windfall to the Scottish public purse.  In reality, the purse would be no bigger as GERS already takes account of the area, and the country would be presented with a defence challenge.  Presumably it is this challenge the SNP are currently wrestling with.

The UK isn’t free of negative press over defence policy with regards to its EEZ coverage.  Frequent appearances of Russian warships has led to fierce criticism of naval response times and the loss of the Nimrod MRA4 programme in 2010 left a gaping hole in airborne maritime patrol capability, a hole that will only start to be closed in 2019 when the first of nine P-8A Poseidon aircraft arrive.

Eye in the sky – but not until 2019
Logically these aircraft should be stationed in Scotland given the maritime area around it, and that’s the plan – they will be based out of RAF Lossiemouth.  The frigate and offshore patrol vessel construction programme currently underway in BAe’s Clyde shipyards will strengthen coastal defence and EEZ patrol capability.  The UK has acted to improve and enhance its capability – but it had to tackle a defence spending question in the process.

Size isn’t everything but instead has upsides and downsides.  Ross and his colleagues would rather we obsess over that favourite nationalist grievance trope – “too wee, too poor, too stupid” – rather than think about the practicalities and possibilities.

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