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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Labour’s best general election bet is Keir Starmer

The shadow secretary for Brexit has the heart of a Remainer - but head of a pragmatic politician in Brexit Britain. 

In a different election, the shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer might have been written off as too quiet a man. Instead - as he set out his plans to scrap the Brexit white paper and offer EU citizens reassurance on “Day One” in the grand hall of the Institute of Civil Engineers - the audience burst into spontaneous applause. 

For voters now torn between their loyalty to Labour and Remain, Starmer is a reassuring figure. Although he says he respects the Brexit vote, the former director of public prosecutions is instinctively in favour of collaborating with Europe. He even wedges phrases like “regulatory alignment” into his speeches. When a journalist asked about the practicality of giving EU citizens right to remain before UK citizens abroad have received similar promises, he retorted: “The way you just described it is to use people as bargaining chips… We would not do that.”

He is also clear about the need for Parliament to vote on a Brexit deal in the autumn of 2018, for a transitional agreement to replace the cliff edge, and for membership of the single market and customs union to be back on the table. When pressed on the option of a second referendum, he said: “The whole point of trying to involve Parliament in the process is that when we get to the final vote, Parliament has had its say.” His main argument against a second referendum idea is that it doesn’t compare like with like, if a transitional deal is already in place. For Remainers, that doesn't sound like a blanket veto of #EUref2. 

Could Leave voters in the provinces warm to the London MP for Holborn and St Pancras? The answer seems to be no – The Daily Express, voice of the blue passport brigade, branded his speech “a plot”. But Starmer is at least respectful of the Brexit vote, as it stands. His speech was introduced by Jenny Chapman, MP for Darlington, who berated Westminster for their attitude to Leave voters, and declared: “I would not be standing here if the Labour Party were in anyway attempting to block Brexit.” Yes, Labour supporters who voted Leave may prefer a Brexiteer like Kate Hoey to Starmer,  but he's in the shadow Cabinet and she's on a boat with Nigel Farage. 

Then there’s the fact Starmer has done his homework. His argument is coherent. His speech was peppered with references to “businesses I spoke to”. He has travelled around the country. He accepts that Brexit means changing freedom of movement rules. Unlike Clive Lewis, often talked about as another leadership contender, he did not resign but voted for the Article 50 Bill. He is one of the rare shadow cabinet members before June 2016 who rejoined the front bench. This also matters as far as Labour members are concerned – a March poll found they disapproved of the way Labour has handled Brexit, but remain loyal to Jeremy Corbyn. 

Finally, for those voters who, like Brenda, reacted to news of a general election by complaining "Not ANOTHER one", Starmer has some of the same appeal as Theresa May - he seems competent and grown-up. While EU regulation may be intensely fascinating to Brexiteers and Brussels correspondents, I suspect that by 2019 most of the British public's overwhelming reaction to Brexit will be boredom. Starmer's willingness to step up to the job matters. 

Starmer may not have the grassroots touch of the Labour leader, nor the charisma of backbench dissidents like Chuka Umunna, but the party should make him the de facto face of the campaign.  In the hysterics of a Brexit election, a quiet man may be just what Labour needs.

What did Keir Starmer say? The key points of his speech

  • An immediate guarantee that all EU nationals currently living in the UK will see no change in their legal status as a result of Brexit, while seeking reciprocal measures for UK citizens in the EU. 
  • Replacing the Tories’ Great Repeal Bill with an EU Rights and Protections Bill which fully protects consumer, worker and environmental rights.
  • A replacement White Paper with a strong emphasis on retaining the benefits of the single market and the customs union. 
  • The devolution of any new powers that are transferred back from Brussels should go straight to the relevant devolved body, whether regional government in England or the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
  • Parliament should be fully involved in the Brexit deal, and MPs should be able to vote on the deal in autumn 2018.
  • A commitment to seek to negotiate strong transitional arrangements when leaving the EU and to ensure there is no cliff-edge for the UK economy. 
  • An acceptance that freedom of movement will end with leaving the EU, but a commitment to prioritise jobs and economy in the negotiations.

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

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