It led some to the view that since we didn’t have properly worked out answers to such silly questions we should simply avoid raising the question of independence at all. That seemed to me to be something of a ‘baby and bathwater’ response. It was precisely the lack of debate around independence and its consequences which led to the situation of candidates not being able to answer the question, rather than the other way around.
Whatever, the episode was brought to mind again recently when I read through the report of the House of Commons defence committee (available here) on the implications of Scottish independence on defence. This time, however, the question seems to be about how many submarines and fast jets Scotland would need, where it would get them, and how it would pay for them. On a per head basis, a split of UK military assets would apparently give Scotland 0.7 of an Astute class submarine and 1.6 frigates and destroyers. As for fast jets, well perhaps around 10 -12 on my reading of the figures. Not enough, say the MPs and military experts, to provide a “credible” defence for Scotland.
My first reaction was simply to dismiss this as yet another silly question, albeit not being asked by a journalist this time. However, on reading the report, it became clear that it was not, after all, such a silly question – because the SNP’s defence policy does indeed call for Scotland to possess a fleet (size unspecified) of submarines and a fleet (size unspecified) of fast jets. They have, in short, invited the question.
Whether Scotland actually needs submarines and fast jets is another question entirely. It all boils down to what it is that Scotland needs to defend itself from and which countries are used as comparators.
For years, decades even, before some of the party’s leading figures got cold feet about discussing the issue at all, Plaid used to compare Wales with the Republic of Ireland, drawing on that country’s experience. Ireland spends a low proportion of its GDP on defence, as a purely defensive capability which can also be deployed in support of the civil authorities and the Republic has long had a clear commitment to support UN peacekeeping activities. Its policy is not predicated on the assumption that the rest of the world is just waiting to invade and conquer it at any sign of weakness. And it doesn't go round the rest of the world pursuing a foreign policy likely to make it a target.
Contrast that with the UK stance. Much of the UK’s armed forces constitute an offensive rather than defensive capability (aircraft carriers, for instance); and UK policy is indeed predicated on an almost paranoid assumption about everybody else’s intentions.
Faced with that contrasting scenario it is pretty clear to me which stance makes most sense from a Welsh – or Scottish – viewpoint. The surprise and disappointment to me is that the SNP’s policy was recently changed to align itself much more clearly with the UK rather than Republic of Ireland view of the world. This even extends to an expressed wish to join NATO – a nuclear armed alliance. On that specific, I find it hard, no matter how much I might want to, to disagree with the House of Commons committee’s point that there’s more than a tiny inconsistency between the rejection of stationing nuclear weapons on Scottish soil and the embracing of membership of a nuclear alliance.
I can understand why the SNP wants to make independence look less of a risk, to be less of a major step, to be less different, in order to win the referendum. But for me, being different and taking a different worldview is part of the point of independence. Moving away from the imperial mind-set of the past is key to developing a different world order, and breaking up one of the old imperial powers is part of the route to doing that. Replicating it on a smaller scale undermines what is for me a major plank of the case.
The answer to the question about submarines should surely be the same as the answer which should have been given about Welsh aircraft carriers – ‘why on earth would we want any of those?’. It’s disappointing that that is not the answer being given - and they can't plead youth and inexperience either.