The SNP has been accused of “misleading the public” after condemning the UK Government for increasing military spending despite lobbying for defence contracts.
The UK Government announced last month the largest military spending increase since the Cold War, with an extra £16.5bn pounds allocated for defence over the next four years.
The money is to counter potential future threats, the government said, including space and cyber-defense projects such as an artificial intelligence agency.
But the scale of the new funding was condemned due to public finances being stretched by the Covid-19 crisis. There was also criticism of plans by UK ministers to cut the foreign aid budget and for refusing to provide free school meals.
Critics included the SNP’s leader at Westminster, Ian Blackford, who questioned Prime Minister Boris Johnson in the House of Commons on Nov 19.
Blackford, the MP for Ross, Skye and Lochaber, accused Johnson of having “his priorities all wrong”. He said: “Billions of pounds of taxpayers money have still been spent on Trident nuclear weapons. Scotland remains overwhelmingly opposed to weapons of mass destruction on the Clyde. We need to respond to these challenges rather than on vanity projects.
“The SNP has serious reservations regarding such a windfall to defence spending during these unprecedented times of hardship for so many.
Blackford continued: “This review will reportedly see the UK as Europe’s biggest defence spender, when just three weeks ago this government refused to provide free school meals for children during the holidays.
“Madame deputy speaker, the prime minister may use the term global Britain, but on these benches we believe that the PM has his priorities all wrong.”
However, in July this year the Scottish Government’s Aerospace Response Group (ARG) – chaired by the SNP’s Jamie Hepburn – lobbied the UK Government for more defence spending in Scotland. Hepburn is the Scottish government’s minister for business, fair work and skills.
The ARG – a taskforce established this year to support jobs in the “aerospace sector” – includes representatives of arms firms, councils, trade unions and Scottish Enterprise.
The minutes of a 21 July 2020 meeting of the ARG noted: “The devolved nations pushed for the acceleration of defence procurement during the joint economy ministers quad call with UK Government last week and a letter was issued from the three devolved economy minsters that called for a UK-wide aerospace task force.”
The minutes also said that ADS Scotland, which represents arms companies such as Raytheon and Leonardo, was continuing to push the UK Government for the “acceleration of defence projects”. The Ferret has reported concerns that £3m of taxpayers’ money was given to these arms companies, who are both profiting from the war in Yemen.
Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) has now accused the Scottish Government of “saying one thing in public and another in private”.
Emma Cockburn, CAAT’s Scotland co-ordinator, said that given the Scottish government’s track record of “pouring millions of pounds worth of public money” into arms manufacturers like Leonard it is not surprising that behind closed doors they are actively pushing for more military contracts north of the border”.
“This looks like a case of the government saying one thing in public and another in private,” Cockburn said.
She argued that with Covid-19 impacting the UK economy, the focus should be on “supporting more sustainable industry” rather than the “ever-greater profits for companies that fuel war and conflict”.
Cockburn continued: “With the long-term impacts of the pandemic ahead of us, the biggest question is what kind of society we want to build. Especially with the COP summit taking place in Glasgow, Scotland should be leading the way in terms of diversifying from arms production and towards renewable technology.
“However, with these revelations, and particularly when considering the disaster with BiFab, we have to ask where the Scottish Government’s priorities lie.”
Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross said: “We’ve become used to Ian Blackford’s endless bluster but he would benefit from checking his facts.
“His false comparisons between domestic matters and the UK’s welcome £16billion defence spending is straight out of the Nationalists’ grievance playbook. Had he taken a moment before sounding off, he would have learned that a senior SNP colleague was actively lobbying for increased defence spending.
Ross added: “We are committed to fully supporting our armed forces. This keeps the UK safe and employs thousands of people across Scotland.”
Ross Greer MSP, of the Scottish Greens, said: “The SNP may make a song and dance about military spending at Westminster, but where they are in power themselves it’s a different story, whether its handing millions of pounds to Saudi Arabia’s arms dealers or lobbying the US Air Force to increase its use of publicly-owned Prestwick Airport.
“Until they get their own house in order, this is just more hot air intended to mislead the public.”
A spokeperson for the Scottish Government said it does not provide funding for the manufacture of munitions – either directly or via Scottish Enterprise – and that support is to help firms diversify and develop non-military applications.
The Scottish Government also said that details of the work of the ARG “are made publicly available so any suggestion it is done behind the scenes is wrong”.
The spokesperson added: “The ARG identified a number of potential diversification opportunities for aerospace businesses including diversification into renewable energy, sustainable aviation, aircraft decommissioning, space and the defence sector which has proven to be far more resilient to the effects of the global pandemic compared with civil aviation.”
The Ferret contacted Blackford for a comment. A spokesperson for the SNP replied on his behalf and said: “The SNP called for a reprioritising of defence spending, not for net increases, and certainly not at the expense of the poorest in society.
“It is disappointing though not surprising Douglas Ross is implying otherwise and mischaracterising the position of the SNP.”
Speaking remotely at prime minister’s questions on Nov 19, Blackford also called on the UK Government to guarantee the future of the Black Watch.
Photo thanks to iStock/Photographic Solutions UK