Scotland’s Surveillance Future

The Scottish Government has published its White Paper, “Scotland’s Future,” commending a vote for independence at the referendum on 18th September this year.

Surveillance is by no means limited to issues of national security but it is worth considering what the White Paper proposes.

An independent Scotland would have its own, newly established, security and intelligence agency (p. 261). There is the question of whether or not it could be ready by day one of independence, as the White Paper anticipates, to “be responsible for and capable of functions including: investigation of threats…intelligence gathering…cyber security functions” (p.262).

The new agency will be “unconstrained by historical structures and precedent” (p.263). Now, that is a bold claim. Just how freed from “historical structures and precedent” can any agency ever be? The new agency would be operating in a security marketplace that will continue to develop rapidly under commercial and political agendas and influences of which the small country of Scotland will figure rather insignificantly.

Critical to these aspirations seems to be the level of investment. The White Paper draws on an assessment that, based on population, Scotland contributed £206 million in 2012 to the UK agencies’ costs of round £2 billion. The Scottish Government anticipates “maintaining a comparable level of spending under independence” (p.266). It seems to me that simply redirecting one’s share of a large UK security project is not likely to be sufficient because of the loss of economies of scale.

Let me put it this way. The per capita cost of 30 people travelling to the seaside in one bus is much less than the per capita costs for 5 people travelling in one car whilst the remaining 25 continue to travel in the bus.   Costs will be incurred by the 5 “independent” travellers such as insurance (not necessarily proportionately less), vehicle purchase (quite an additional cost in itself), maintenance, running and taxation.  Simply spending 5 times the original per capita costs may well get the 5 “independent” travellers little further than the first service station en route to the seaside.

It could be argued that an independent Scotland might – because of its distancing from, for instance, Blair’s ventures in Iraq  – be less of a target for international terrorism. But that is a risk assessment with significant fiscal implications that needs to be carefully considered.

In the dimension of surveillance policy I have argued elsewhere that the Scottish Parliament has had a good track record (see note below). My point here is not about policy but about the economics of surveillance. Were the new Scottish security and intelligence agency to be set up on a shoe string, the outcome could well be an increase in automated surveillance (because of the limited availability of analysts). This would be a natural bureaucratic response to the fear of missing something vital in surveillance data. Alternatively, an under-financed surveillance and intelligence agency could be dangerously ineffective.   Then again, both might occur (increased and ineffective surveillance).

Quite what the contribution of shared intelligence systems and personnel would be to the economics of surveillance in an independent Scotland are unknown.

I am aware that it might appear that I am arguing for a massive investment in a surveillance agency in an independent Scotland. That is not what I’m saying. I merely observe that the impact of global surveillance markets cannot be glossed over nor ought the loss of economies of scale gained through the UK agencies be so easily ignored in the White Paper.


Note: Stoddart, E. 2012 “Scottish Surveillance Policy: Holding the Line”  In Scottish Devolution and Social Policy: Evidence from the First Decade . Leith, M., McPhee, I. & Laxton, T. (eds.). Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing , pp. 11-29

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