Bill Austin: How Scotland could approach security as an independent country

Former customs officer Bill Austin reviews a new academic collection examining the security of small states through the lens of Scotland's constitutional debate

Review of 'Security in a Small Nation: Scotland, Democracy, Politics', edited by Andrew W. Neal

THE 2014 independence referendum brought about a seminar series entitled 'Security in Scotland, with or without constitutional change' at the University of Edinburgh, and the recent atrocities in Manchester in London have provided a current perspective on this vital subject.

Nearly three years after our first independence referendum, our national security, or lack of it, has been brought into stark relief following the recent terror attacks, and a new collection of academic essays addresses the issues in some detail. 

The UK Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) funded a closed-door seminar series, and academic papers, during 2013-2015 which discussed the meaning of security in the context of national independence of small states while focusing on the main points of contention over Scottish self-determination.

Read more – Academics launch book on security policy in independent Scotland

The ESRC papers generated essays, now collected into this fascinating volume, on a range of expert analysis covering security. These essays were written by authors who reflect a variety of specialisms, including foreign policy, surveillance and privacy issues, parliamentary intelligence oversight, media and the politics of security.

The fine-grained arguments contained in the subject matter do not assess right or wrong but rather are a focal point for fundamental questions about the future of nation states and the relationship between democracy and security.

Taken together, the book and ESRC papers provide a fair and balanced cognitive content which strongly evidences that there is a robust case for small nations coping very effectively within political, economic and societal "shelters", but particularly the hard and soft security of the EU and Nato. 

This combined work would be essential reading for any nascent national security organisation in a self-governing Scotland.

So with the backdrop of the Manchester suicide-bomb, the attacks in London, Brexit and an impending General Election, is this a pertinent moment to reflect on Scotland’s security landscape and who we might decide is better able to govern our safety? 

Are we "better together" as the unionists claim, or would we be more secure as a small nation within the shelter of international treaties? 

Are we "better together" as the unionists claim, or would we be more secure as a small nation within the shelter of international treaties? 

The volume substantiates both points of view but omits detailed examination of two vital areas directly related to Scotland’s security: foreign policy and borders.

Dealing with foreign policy first, no Scots voter should be in any doubt that continuous UK foreign policy has enraged and stirred an Islamist hornets nest in the last few decades. From Thatcher’s 1986 assistance to US bomber fleets in attacking Libya through Tony Blair’s illegal wars in Iraq and Afghanistan followed by direct involvement, to date, in the destabilisation of Middle East and North African states, including Libya, UK security has demonstrably been threatened. 

The evidence? The 7/7 London bombings in 2005, the Glasgow airport attack in 2007 and, most recently, Manchester and London. Undoubtedly, UK security services have prevented more attacks than they've missed, but it begs the obvious question: "Would Scotland be such a target, requiring extremely expensive security networks, if it was independent of aggressive, illegal London foreign policy?" 

Former UK ambassador Craig Murray recently stated: "On the very lowest estimates, the number of children killed by violence alone directly as a result of fighting in the Iraq invasion and occupation, is the equivalent of a Manchester massacre every single day for eight years."

The volume substantiates both points of view but omits detailed examination of two vital areas directly related to Scotland’s security: foreign policy and borders.

Secondly, the volume omits essential forensic examination of the security of our borders, hard or soft. Salman Abedi’s bomb kit was smuggled into the UK. How many customs officers are currently securing our Scottish ports and airports to interdict his like, and kit? The answer, alarmingly, is very few. 

This is a strategic gap in our intelligence and security screen. In 2005, HM Customs and Excise was disbanded by Gordon Brown on the excuse of cost saving but, in my view, it was really intended to eliminate an effective revenue-collecting department as part of his city-favouring, pro-corporation "light-touch" approach. 

Residual customs responsibilities were then amalgamated with Inland Revenue, to form HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC). Public perception is that HRMC has borders responsibility but, in fact, in spite of customs being in its title, it doesn’t do borders.

Customs officers were very effective, professional anti-smugglers who specialised in intelligence gathering in order to protect the revenues of our tax base in addition to preventing prohibited and restricted items being smuggled, such as weapons and explosives. 

Today, customs signs at airports are a fig-leaf to a brazen UK lie. There are no permanent customs officers at any Scottish airport or port. There hasn’t been for the last 12 years.

This review substantiates that Scotland’s security is not well-served by current British foreign policy and our non-existent customs service.

Between 2010 and 2016, responsibility for the security of our airports and ports belonged to Theresa May, as home secretary, which coincided with an endemic rise in smuggling - amounting to a significant wedge of the annual UK tax gap of £120bn. 

May created the UK Border Force (UKBF) to focus primarily on immigration. Parliamentary evidence states that border anti-smuggling is "secondary" to Border Force. UKBF is responsible for border security.

In UK law, chapter 11 of The Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Act 2009 requires UKBF to appoint "customs designated officials". In March 2017, three written parliamentary questions requested the number of customs officials, by home nation, since 2009. 

The same reply was received: "This information is not held centrally by the Home Office ... could only be obtained at disproportionate cost." That's parliament speak for "don’t know" or, perhaps more worryingly, "won’t tell".

So how many UKBF customs staff, in Scotland, are searching for smugglers and contraband, including weapons and explosives today? Anecdotally, to provide 24/7 cover over 365 days annually, there are as few as 30. It is also believed that they are thoroughly demoralised pension prisoners.

Scotland would be much more secure by adopting a 21st century smart border system staffed by an effective professional customs staff throughout our country.

Is customs needed? Judge for yourself. One single Scots port, Greenock Ocean Terminal, projects it will handle 200,000 20-foot containers per year by 2021, representing a 100 per cent increase on today’s units. 

Who is patrolling that dock, gathering essential first-hand customs intelligence to feed to anti-smuggling teams to rummage these enormous numbers of containers and ships? No-one. 

Ask yourself the same question of the vast amounts of freight and passengers landing at all of our airports as global traffic increases exponentially. The answer is the same. 

Do terrorists and organised criminals smuggle revenue contraband such as tobacco goods, wines, spirits and fuels to fund their bombs, beans and bullets? The IRA did exactly that for 30 years. 

When Brexit impacts on the border of non-EU Northern Ireland, where it is believed there are less than 20 UKBF customs officials to cover 300+ border crossing points (BCPs), we in Scotland can expect rampant smuggling from there.

Competent, non-belligerent Edinburgh foreign diplomacy would be essential to safeguarding our new democratic state and citizens, supported by a clear, ethical, written constitution.

To summarise, the tome evidences that small is beautiful. Additionally, this review substantiates that Scotland’s security is not well-served by current British foreign policy and our non-existent customs service. Scotland would be much more secure by adopting a 21st century smart border system staffed by an effective professional customs staff throughout our country in close co-operation with our police, other security agencies and international colleagues.

Also note that Brexit takes Scotland out of the EU Customs Union, which is a major source of customs intelligence. It is known that EU customs authorities regard the UK as a weak link in protecting Europe. 

Therefore, it may be strongly argued that our security is jeopardised by viewing such issues through London’s 20th century prism of Empire 2.0.

Finally, competent, non-belligerent Edinburgh foreign diplomacy would be essential to safeguarding our new democratic state and citizens, supported by a clear, ethical, written constitution.

You can buy a copy of Security in a Small Nation: Scotland, Democracy, Politics here.

Bill Austin is the co-author of a report for the Common Weal think tank on an independent Scotland’s customs and borders.

Check out what people are saying about how important CommonSpace is: Pledge your support today.

Comments

MauriceBishop

Tue, 06/06/2017 - 18:37

"How many customs officers are currently securing our Scottish ports and airports to interdict his like, and kit? The answer, alarmingly, is very few. "

And lets be honest: after independence it will be an even lower number. Look at education, and area where Scotland is already "independent". The SNP are starving it of funds because they want money to spend on flashier baubles. Now imagine what will happen after independence when there is even less money available.

BILL97

Tue, 06/13/2017 - 16:53

Maurice, I am very, very confident iScotland will ensure that an effective, professional Customs & Excise will be re-instituted. Why? Every country needs revenues. Customs does that. The normal revenue collection rate is £0.01 for every £1 collected. It follows, therefore, that it is very much in iScotlands interest to aim for a Top Ten world-standard revenue collection service. The current ineffective UK tax system has an annual Tax Gap of £120 BILLION per year i.e. tax due but uncollected. Don't believe me ? Try this - http://www.taxresearch.org.uk/Blog/2017/04/21/whats-the-tax-gap-a-new-po...

CommonSpace journalism is completely free from the influence of advertisers and is only possible with your continued support. Please contribute a monthly amount towards our costs. Build the Scotland you want to live in - support our new media.