The main UK security and defence news of the last week has been the announcement from Scottish First Minster, Nicola Sturgeon that she is to seek permission from the UK Government for a Scottish independence referendum. The Guardian reports that Ms Sturgeon has triggered a fresh constitutional battle over Scotland’s future after announcing plans to stage a second independence referendum within two years. Accusing Theresa May of thwarting Scotland’s desire for a special deal with Europe, the First Minister confirmed she plans to hold the vote between autumn 2018 and spring 2019, unless the UK government offers substantial last-minute concessions. Ms Sturgeon said the Prime Minister’s refusal to discuss full Scottish access to the Single Market and to threaten heavy restrictions on the new powers for Scotland after Brexit made a second referendum all but inevitable.
Following Ms Sturgeon’s announcement, Theresa May accused the SNP leader of “tunnel vision” and said that the SNP’s plan represented the “worst possible timing” for Scotland, as it would not be clear in 2018 or early 2019 what kind of post-Brexit relationship the UK would have with the EU. The Prime Minster subsequently rejected the SNP’s timetable outright, but held back from ruling a second referendum post-Brexit. Ms May’s response drew a furious response from the SNP leader, with Ms Sturgeon stating that the Prime Minister could have “sealed the fate of the Union”.
These developments occurred as the Bill authorising the UK Government to begin the departure process from the EU completed its journey through Parliament. Following its successful passage through the House of Commons, the House of Lords also approved the Bill, but added two amendments – one calling for the protection of the status of EU nationals in the UK, and one calling for a “meaningful vote” on any UK-EU deal before Britain departed the block. When the Bill returned to the House of Commons – as part of a process known as ‘ping-pong’ – both amendments were subsequently rejected. On the return of the Bill to the Lords, the House passed the Bill once more, but withdrew the amendments. It is now awaiting Royal Assent to become law, and it is expected that Theresa May will begin the UK’s withdrawal from the EU by submitting an Article 50 notification to the EU within two weeks.
Approval for a new referendum would require the consent of both the Edinburgh and Westminster Government. The SNP does not hold a majority in the Scottish Parliament, but the Green Party has agreed to lend its support to a new vote, providing the necessary majority. The Westminster Government is likely to eventually grant authorisation for a vote to avoid the risk of fuelling support for the SNP. The major question is over timing: Brexit is likely to occur in the spring of 2019, and the UK Government has ruled out any independence vote until at least this point. It is possible that Westminster may even seek to delay the vote until after the May 2021 Scottish elections, although this option would likely only enhance support of the SNP.
Opinion polls almost all indicate that, at present, Scotland would vote to remain part of the UK, although the majority for ‘remain’ is small. Nevertheless, an independent Scotland would face major financial challenges, and it is unlikely that the SNP would this time be able to credibly claim that the remaining North Sea Oil would support the country.
Were Scotland to vote for independence in 2019, it would likely acquire it in around 2021. The UK would have to maintain a military presence in Scotland for some years after that – including in the form of Trident – due to the time it would take to build alternative facilities in England and Wales. As such, it is unlikely that that the MDP would see any change in its posture in the medium term.
· Objections raised over Trident security privatisation plan
· ‘Marine A’ acquitted of murder
· Pensioner faces jail over Trident protest
· Controversy over MoD plans to axe free call service
· Aircraft carrier delay warning from spending watchdog
· Army brigadier sentenced for wrongly claiming money
· New Royal Navy patrol ship officially named
Objections raised over Trident security privatisation plan
The Sunday Herald reports that plans by the UK Government to privatise military guards at nuclear bases on the Clyde have come under attack by both the SNP and Labour. The proposal has been branded as “chilling” and “dangerous”, with both parties are now working to persuade Westminster to drop the idea. If it goes ahead private security companies, like G4S and Mitie, would bid to run the service currently carried out by the Ministry of Defence Guard Service (MGS), including the protection of nuclear submarines at Faslane and the Trident warhead storage site at Coulport. The MGS currently employs 2100 civilian staff at over 100 MoD sites across the UK including HM Naval Base Clyde at Faslane. The MoD claims it could make saving of approximately £17m over five years.
Argyll and Bute MP Brendan O’Hara, SNP spokesman on defence, said he would attempt to block the Conservative plans. “This is a particularly chilling example of the Tories cutting costs and cutting corners – and when it comes to nuclear bases – it is just not on,” he added. Labour MSP Jackie Baillie, whose Dumbarton constituency takes in Faslane, has written to Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon MP, urging him to drop the plans. She has also laid down a motion at the Scottish Parliament and is calling for an official debate, acknowledging the “vital role” of the specialist teams.
The matter was also raised in the House of Commons this week. Shadow Defence Secretary Nia Griffiths criticised the past outcomes of similar outsourcing as resulting in “lower levels of staffing, less continuity, less training and less vetting”, and called on the Government to abandon the plans. Responding, Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon said that options were currently under consideration for replacing unarmed security services.
Any potential move to outsource the services provided by the MGS would not directly impact upon the MDP, although it is conceivable that any shortfalls in new unarmed guarding arrangements could put additional pressures on MDP resources at facilities that currently have both an MGS and MDP presence. There is also the potential for any changes in security to set a precedent. In the case of the MDP this could prompt further consideration as to the alternative use of Armed Forces personnel, should the MoD consider there to be a potential financial savings. The DPF has firmly opposed any such suggestions and continues to highlight these concerns in meetings with parliamentarians. We have briefed both Brendan O’Hara and Nia Griffith in recent months, and they remain very sensitive to the Federation’s concerns.
‘Marine A’ acquitted of murder
The Guardian reports that a murder conviction against a British marine who shot dead a seriously wounded Taliban prisoner in Afghanistan has been quashed and replaced with one of manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility. Mr Blackman, who was not at the Royal Courts of Justice to hear the decision, remains in prison for the moment but will be re-sentenced within the next couple of weeks and at that point could be released.
In Wednesday’s ruling, the appeal court judges said Blackman had been “an exemplary soldier before his deployment to Afghanistan in March 2011”. The judges said it was “clear that a consequence [of his service in Afghanistan] was that he had developed a hatred for the Taliban and a desire for revenge”. At the time of the killing “the patrol remained under threat from other insurgents”, they noted adding “Given his prior exemplary conduct, we have concluded that it was the combination of the stressors, the other matters to which we have referred and his adjustment disorder that substantially impaired his ability to form a rational judgment.”
Pensioner faces jail over Trident protest
The Daily Mail reports that an elderly anti-nuclear protestor who single-handedly brought an armed MoD convoy allegedly carrying Trident nuclear warheads to a halt is facing jail after refusing to pay a fine. Brian Quail, 78, lay underneath an armoured personnel carrier as the vehicles passed beneath Stirling Castle on the way to the Royal Navy's base at Coulport on Loch Long. Stirling Justice of the Peace Court was told by a police whiteness that the atmosphere became 'tense' as the retired classics teacher wedged himself underneath the drive shaft of the vehicle that was carrying armed MDP officers. Quail, of Partick, Glasgow, pleaded not guilty to causing a breach of the peace by his actions on September 15th last year but was fined £200 following a three-hour trial. He immediately said he would not pay the fine, putting him at risk of jail.
The management of this incident by MDP personnel once again demonstrates the necessity of the MoD having a force capable of engaging with the full spectrum of threats, including engagements within civilian environments.
Army brigadier sentenced for wrongly claiming money
The BBC reports that a brigadier has been sentenced after admitting wrongly claiming taxpayers' money for his two sons' school fees. Brig Charles Beardmore, 51, is believed to be the most senior officer to face an Army court martial since 1952. At an earlier hearing at Merville Barracks in Colchester, Essex, Brig Beardmore admitted a single charge of negligently performing his duty. The court martial heard there was no suggestion of dishonesty.
Brig Beardmore, of the Defence Medical Services in Whittington, Staffordshire, was sentenced to forfeit all seniority as a brigadier by a board of three Army brigadiers – a punishment that only applies to commissioned officers. He was also “severely reprimanded” and ordered to pay a service compensation order of £11,750 to the MoD within 14 days.
Controversy over MoD plans to axe free call service
The Sun reports that veterans have asked defence chiefs not to axe free messages from home for overseas troops to save just £1 million. The dispatches, known as ‘e-blueys’, were used in war zones like Iraq and Afghanistan. They were printed out for soldiers after being sent via a secure web server. The MoD confirmed the service will end on 31st March because more troops now use social media. It pledged to invest the £1 million saving on wi-fi at overseas locations. However, soldiers are often ordered not to use the internet for security reasons.
Aircraft carrier delay warning from spending watchdog
The BBC reports that technical issues and personnel shortages could delay the deployment of the Royal Navy's new aircraft carriers, the spending watchdog has warned. HMS Queen Elizabeth and Prince Of Wales will provide the Navy with a capacity it will have been without for a decade. But the National Audit Office says the project is entering a “critical phase”, with many risks to manage.
Among the other areas mentioned by the NAO were:
· Personnel issues: The report says while the number of pilots needed is “just sufficient” there could be problems if personnel left the forces. There could also be problems with the number of available Royal Navy engineers
· Timing: The next three years will be crucial, the report says, as the carrier brings together the jets, helicopter and radar as well the crew and the ships' support. The NAO says there is “no further room for slippage”. And there are still technical risks, not least with the F-35B jets still being designed and tested
· Cost increases: The NAO says the MoD is already facing a cost overrun of up to 2% on the £6.2bn budget for building the two ships. Costs for buying the F-35B jets could rise because of currency fluctuations.
The MoD acknowledged “challenges” but said it was committed to being fully operational by 2026.
New Royal Navy patrol ship officially named
The Scotsman reports that the first of a fleet of Royal Navy new offshore patrol vessels (OPVs) has been named after one of Scotland’s major rivers. The 90-metre warship will be known as HMS Forth and was christened at a ceremony at the BAE Systems Scotstoun shipyard in Glasgow. She will soon depart on sea trials before beginning service in 2018. She is the first of a fleet of five new batch 2 river-class OPVs being built on the Clyde which are expected to be in service by 2021.