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 He'll also say that, two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, NATO no longer represents the ideological and destabilising force it did during the Cold War.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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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.