The SNP's NATO u-turn

In its drive to sell independence to middle-Scotland, the nationalist leadership is neglecting the S

The news that the SNP is preparing to abandon its longstanding opposition to independent Scottish membership of NATO at its national executive meeting this summer has provoked murmurings of discontent, as well as a few loud howls of condemnation. The murmurings emanate from inside the party, with a handful of nationalist MSPs quietly indicating they intend to resist any shift in policy. The howls come from the leaders of the unionist parties, including the Tories' Ruth Davidson and Labour's Jim Murphy, who see the reversal as further evidence of Alex Salmond's failure to get to grips with the defence issue.

As the debate develops, Salmond will justify the move on the grounds it will offer reassurance to those concerned about the capacity of an independent Scotland to meet certain 21st Century security needs. He'll also say that, two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, NATO no longer represents the ideological and destabilising force it did during the Cold War. 

By contrast, his opponents argue that it will limit the ability of the SNP to achieve one of its central goals: the removal from Scottish waters of British nuclear weapons. They claim that as a member of NATO – a defence alliance built on the principle of nuclear deterrence – Scotland would have an obligation to continue to host the UK's Trident system after having left the Union. They contend further that it is morally and intellectually inconsistent to advocate disarmament while enjoying the "benefits" of a nuclear defence pact underwritten by other countries.

But these criticisms don’t stand up to much scrutiny. Firstly, if other NATO members, like Norway and Germany, can hold non-nuclear status there is no obvious reason why an independent Scotland can't. And secondly, nowhere in NATO's 2010 Strategic Concept agreement does it say that new members are required to develop nuclear weapons capacity, nor that existing members are required to indefinitely maintain those weapons they currently possess. In fact, in committing NATO "to the goal of creating the conditions of a world without nuclear weapons", the preface of the agreement implies the opposite. 

However, the real problem for Salmond doesn’t lie with his unionist rivals (who tend to attack pretty much everything he does) or with his own party (which, according to Professor James Mitchell, is already broadly on board). Rather, the danger for the nationalist chief is that in his drive to water down the most radical aspects of his party's programme – and therefore make the break-up of Britain more palatable to "middle-Scotland" – he is alienating left-wing and anti-militarist supporters of independence. 

This is significant because, although reluctant to admit it, Salmond knows that victory in the 2014 referendum will depend on the cooperation of small radical groups and progressive civic society organisations, like the Greens and CND. That's not to say the SNP doesn't have the resources or grassroots capacity to run a campaign of its own – clearly it does. But unless it can demonstrate that enthusiasm for full self-government is sufficiently widespread, it will find it much harder to counter the unionist charge that "separatism" is a fringe doctrine fundamentally at odds with Scotland's constitutionally moderate majority. 

The first minister has expended considerable energy pandering to the right and its associated business interests in recent years - think of his pledge to cut corporation tax, his embrace of Rupert Murdoch and his monarchism. But he would do well to remember there is a powerful cultural and political left in Scotland, and it’s yet to properly flex its muscles in this debate. His looming u-turn on NATO could be the thing which finally prompts it to do so.

A Trident nuclear submarine off the coast of Largs, Scotland. Photograph: MoD/Getty Images
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The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era