The SNP's Clause IV moment

Is Alex Salmond preparing to water-down his party's traditional opposition to nuclear weapons?

In Inverness this weekend, the SNP will hold its first conference since winning an unprecedented overall majority at the Scottish elections last May. No doubt the party faithful will be in buoyant mood. Recent polls have suggested growing support not just for Alex Salmond and his nationalist administration, but also for its raison d'etre of independence. Better still, Scotland's two main opposition parties -- Labour and the Conservatives -- remain leaderless and apparently incapable of developing an effective strategy to save the union.

Without question, a key factor in the SNP's current success has been its ability to maintain, as shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander put it in a speech last week, a "Mandelsonian discipline". This was necessary during its first term in office when -- as a minority government -- a single dissenting vote could block the passage of any piece of legislation. Yet even in the six months since it took full control of the chamber at Holyrood, its ranks have remained essentially unbroken. The prospect of an independence referendum sometime in the next three to four years seems to have further strengthened nationalist unity.

But outside the MSP and MP groups, there are signs of emerging discontent. In particular, many ordinary members and grassroots activists are disturbed at what they perceive as a shift away from the party's traditional opposition to the stationing of the British nuclear weapons system on the Clyde.

In its submission to the UK Basing Review in June, the Scottish government officially welcomed the decision of the Ministry of Defence to roughly double the size of its nuclear powered submarine fleet at Faslane from five to around twelve or fourteen by 2017. Although not stated in the text, the probable grounds for this are that it would secure the several thousand jobs at the base well beyond the timing of the independence referendum.

The announcement, which ministers were careful not to publicise, followed the publication of an article by Jim Sillars -- whose contribution is significant because of his former status as leader of the party's fundamentalist wing -- in which he argued that Scotland should maintain a form of "military Unionism" with England after independence, including a deal to lease out the Trident base for an unspecified period of time. In the rollicking style typical of the ex-Labour MP, Sillars wrote: "Leasing the Trident base? Jings, crivvens, help ma Boab. Never! is likely to be the first reaction of party members. [But] we must look through the English end of the telescope. Scottish independence, in the old model and old policies, threatens English state interests". There was no public riposte from the nationalist leadership, which tends to be highly sensitive to such radical departures from its script.

The concept of military unionism articulated by Sillars is consistent with the notion of "independence-lite" or "devolution-max" which the First Minister has hinted will be included as a third option on the referendum ballot paper. If this turns out to be the preferred choice of the Scottish people -- and most polls suggest it will be -- it would see Scotland gain full economic autonomy while Westminster retains control over defence and foreign affairs. As such, the possibility of Scotland achieving a quasi-independent status yet still carrying the burden of risk inherent in hosting the UK's nuclear capacity is very real.

The SNP's policy of unilateral nuclear disarmament is a core element in its claim to radicalism -- the nationalist equivalent of Labour's Clause IV. If Salmond was to retreat from it in any way, his party could experience the same moral collapse suffered by Labour under the stewardship of Tony Blair but without the associated electoral success. (A number of surveys show that a majority of Scots are against the renewal of the Trident system.)

So why would the First Minister, famed for his tactical intelligence, take such a potentially damaging step? Well, like Sillars, he may reason that watering down his opposition to the independent deterrent could work to soften London's resistance to full Scottish self-government by reducing the threat it poses to the UK's international standing.

But Sillars and Salmond forget that it is not politicians in London the SNP needs to have on side in order to win the forthcoming referendum; it is people in Scotland, including ordinary party members.

Although the Scottish government has, since June, repeated its intention to get rid of the Trident nuclear submarines, its submission to the Basing Review has created a degree of ambiguity with regard to its longer-standing commitment to make Scotland totally nuclear free. A motion has been tabled at conference which invites the SNP's policy elite -- principally Salmond and his referendum campaign director and Westminster leader Angus Robertson MP -- to reaffirm that commitment. If they refuse to endorse the resolution -- or worse, simply ignore it -- that much-vaunted "Mandelsonian discipline" could begin to unravel just when it is going to be needed most.

James Maxwell is a Scottish political journalist. He is based between Scotland and London.

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Article 50 deadline: Nick Clegg urges Remainers to "defy Brexit bullies and speak up"

The former deputy Prime Minister argued Brexiteers were trying to silence the 48 per cent. 

On Wednesday 29 March, at 12.30pm, Britain's ambassador to the EU, Tim Barrow, will hand deliver a letter to the European Council President, Donald Tusk. On that sheet of paper will be the words triggering Article 50. Nine months after Britain voted for Brexit, it will formally begin the process of leaving the EU.

For grieving Remainers, the delivery of the letter abruptly marks the end of the denial stage. But what happens next?

Speaking at an Open Britain event, former Deputy Prime Minister and Lib Dem Leader Nick Clegg had an answer. Responding to the concerns of a scientist in the audience, he declared:

“The most important thing of all is people like you make your voice heard. What the hysterical aggression from the Brexiteers means is they want to silence you.

"That’s why they attack everyone. The Bank of England - how dare you speak about the British economy? How dare judges make a judgement? How dare Remainers still believe they want to be part of the EU? 

"What they systematically try to do is bully and delegitimise anyone who disagrees with their narrow world view.

"It’s a ludicrous thing when 16.1m people - that’s more than have ever voted for a party in a general election - voted for a different future, when 70 per cent of youngsters have voted for a different future.

"It is astonishing these people, how they give themselves the right to say: 'You have no voice, how dare you stick to your views how dare you stick to your dreams and aspirations?'

That’s the most important thing of all. You don’t get bored, you don’t get miserable, you don’t glum, you continue to speak up. What they hope is you’ll just go home, the most important thing is people continue to speak up."

He urged those affected by Brexit to lobby their MPs, and force them to raise the issue in Parliament. 

After Article 50 is triggered, the UK positioning is over, and the EU negotiators will set out their response. As well as the official negotiating team, MEPs and leaders of EU27 countries are likely to give their views - and with elections scheduled in France and Germany, some will be responding to the pressures of domestic politics first. 

For those Remainers who feel politically homeless, there are several groups that have sprung up to campaign against a hard Brexit:

Open Britain is in many ways the successor to the Remain campaign, with a cross-party group of MPs and a focus on retaining access to the single market and holding the government to account. 

Another Europe is Possible was the alternative, left-wing Remain campaign. It continues to organise protests and events.

March for Europe is a cross-Europe Facebook community which also organises events.

The People's Challenge was a crowd-funded campaign which, alongside the more famous Gina Miller, successfully challenged the government in court and forced it to give Parliament a vote on triggering Article 50.

The3million is a pressure group set up to represent EU citizens in the UK.

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.