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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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.