No-nuke Nats prepare to embrace Nato

In the Ealing film classic Whisky Galore, there is a scene that shows how far the tight little island of Little Todday is from the realities of warfare. The fearful Home Guardsman Duncan Macrae presents his empty rifle at a figure looming out of the Scottish mist and quavers in the utterly unthreatening lilt of the Hebrides: "Haalt - who isss going there?"

A similarly comic scenario will be played out when the Scottish National Party conference (19-22 September) considers whether an independent Scotland would flex its muscles against Nato.

The Nationalists are being riven by a move to end 25 years of opposition to joining Nato. The conference will debate a motion that Scotland should "take its place as a member state of Nato", while ensuring that no nuclear missiles or submarine bases are allowed on Scottish territory.

It would mean an SNP-governed Scotland sheltering under Nato's nuclear umbrella while ordering the alliance to clear out of the nuclear base at Faslane, dismantle its installations, compensate local communities and keep its Trident submarines out of Scottish waters.

The party leadership backs the policy change on the grounds that developments in Europe since the end of the cold war, among them the extension of Nato to include the new democracies, require a "more realistic" attitude.

Left-wingers and fundamentalists, however, charge that it is wrong to embrace Nato, amid doubts about the alliance's role and President Bush's "son of Star Wars". The party's leader, John Swinney, is being renamed "John Swither", since he claimed in last year's leadership contest to hold the high moral ground on defence: "When I came to believe in independence at the age of 15, I was also against nuclear arms, and my views have not changed one whit."

It could be dismissed as a typical SNP stushie over something that will never happen, but it typifies the identity crisis that has neutered the Nationalists since devolution. Independence, the very reason for the party's existence, was relegated to the last of ten pledges for the 1999 Scottish election and, since then, the leadership has concentrated on the far-from-inspiring issues of parliamentary powers, tax strategy and full fiscal autonomy.

The party's share of the vote, which had been as high as 48 per cent in opinion polls, dropped to 20.2 per cent in this year's UK election. It was an SNP loss that allowed the unforgivable to happen: the return of a single Scottish Tory MP.

An internal report on marketing the party reminded the SNP that it still has to win the argument for an independent Scotland, and activists have to explain how independence is "always better for Scotland than devolution".

Other factors contribute to the Nationalist slump: Swinney's performance in the Scottish Parliament is so unimpressive that Question Time, when he attempts to challenge Labour's First Minister, Henry McLeish, has been dubbed "hamster wars". The SNP organisation is in disarray. It has been without a chief executive for more than two years, its website is months out of date and it still has a £300,000 overdraft from the election.

The party's conference in Dundee - where the starry-eyed slogan "Free by '93" was coined - must now be the launch pad for the 2003 Scottish election. A Project 2003 Delivery Group has been set up, and the staid Swinney is being made over. His transformation "from bank manager to babe magnet", involving such daring initiatives as being seen in public without a tie, has already had one result - a comely partner who gave up her job as BBC political correspondent to avoid a conflict of interest.

Independence is back at No 1 in campaign leaflets. As Swinney puts it: "We have begun the process of linking independence to the everyday life of the people of Scotland. If we control Scotland's resources, we'll be in a better position to control people's incomes, benefits, taxes and opportunities to get out of poverty.

"Even the existing powers of the Scottish Parliament, limited as they are, can be used to make a better Scotland. But if you want the best Scotland, you need full independence."

Scottish Nationalism is the self- renewing triumph of hope over experience, and that "Free by '93" slogan has been replaced by "Nat heaven in Oh-Oh-Seven". Meanwhile, the rest of us will try to keep straight faces at the prospect of the Nationalist First Minister and commander-in-chief of the Scottish Home Guard giving Nato its marching orders.

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the open society?