The SNP confronts its defence problem

A dispute over Scottish membership of NATO will raise questions about the party’s strategy and values at its conference in Perth this weekend.

The issue of defence has always been problematic for the Scottish National Party (SNP). The importance of British military contracts in sustaining the Scottish ship building industry and the prominent role played by the United Kingdom in international affairs formed powerful obstacles to independence during the 20th Century. Today, despite the steady decline of the Scottish shipyards and Britain’s increasingly marginal status in global politics, polls suggest Scots remain content for London to continue to determine Scotland’s defence policy. 

With the independence referendum fast approaching, the nationalists are under increasing pressure to convince voters that Scotland’s defence needs would be better served outside the Union. In July, Angus Robertson MP, the SNP’s defence spokesman and Westminster leader, published a new set of defence proposals which laid out plans for an independent Scottish defence force of 15,000 regular and 5,000 reserve personnel. This would be funded, Robertson said, by a military budget reduced from the £3.3bn Scotland currently spends as part of the UK to £2.5bn, bringing Scottish defence expenditure down to 1.7 per cent of GDP, more or less into line with the Nordic average (Norway spends 1.6 per cent of its GDP on defence, while Denmark and Finland each spend 1.5 per cent).

Robertson’s proposals were broadly welcomed by colleagues in the SNP. But his recommendation that the party abandon its longstanding opposition to independent Scottish membership of NATO - an organisation viewed by many nationalists as a Cold War relic and cipher of American military power - proved highly contentious, with at least a dozen SNP MSPs and a significant number of ordinary party members expressing opposition to any change in policy. The row simmered over the summer but is due to reach its climax this Friday when delegates vote on the issue at the SNP conference in Perth.

What explains the SNP leadership’s newfound support for the transatlantic Alliance? Speaking to the New Statesman last month, Robertson said he believed NATO membership had become necessary to reassure Scotland’s allies that independence would not disrupt current regional defence arrangements and other networks of international cooperation: “I’ve been defence spokesperson for the SNP since 2001. Since then, I’ve been meeting regularly with politicians, academics and defence planners in neighbouring countries to better understand the collective defence needs of our region. It has become ever more apparent to me that the existing, interlinking defence and security arrangements in the region work. And I think it’s important to send a message to our neighbours and friends that we wish to continue working with one another.”

Robertson rejected the claim advanced by some anti-nuclear activists that, by remaining part of NATO, Scotland’s capacity to force Britain’s nuclear submarine fleet from Faslane, a naval base 30 miles north of Glasgow, would be severely or even permanently restricted: “The motion which will be put before conference makes it absolutely clear that an independent Scotland under SNP Government will only stay in NATO with an agreement that Trident will go. I see no reason why a sovereign Scotland without Trident bases wouldn’t be able to cooperate with its partners (in NATO).”

Referring to a report by Scottish CND, which concludes that Trident warheads could be completely removed from Scotland within two years of independence, he also appeared to dismiss suggestions that the SNP might cut a deal with the British Government to lease Faslane for an extended period after the dissolution of the Union: “(The report) is very helpful in understanding that arrangements could be reached in the shortest period of time. I want Faslane to operate as a conventional Scottish naval base as quickly as possible. For that to happen, we have to secure the earliest transfer of Trident from Scotland.” This is consistent with the party's recent announcement that it will seek to impose a constitutional ban on nuclear weapons in Scotland’s first independent parliament.

Despite Robertson’s assurances, John Finnie, an SNP MSP who joined the party at 16 in response to the stationing of the American Polaris fleet in Holy Loch in the 1960s, remains un-persuaded. Citing the difficulties experienced by Germany in its efforts to rid itself of US nuclear missile bases, he suspects NATO membership would complicate the process of expelling Trident from Scottish waters. But the crux of his opposition to NATO is moral, rather than practical or technical: the kind of independent Scotland he envisions - social democratic, internationalist - is not, he argues, compatible with a nuclear defence alliance committed to a first strike policy. “We must be very clear that we will have nothing to do with a nuclear alliance”, he told the New Statesman in a meeting at the Scottish Parliament in August. “That does not mean we’re isolationist. The idea we wouldn’t cooperate with our neighbours is inconceivable. But cooperation doesn’t mean giving endorsement to a first-strike nuclear alliance.”

Finnie is also troubled by the prospect of an independent Scotland inheriting the UK’s Atlanticist tendencies: “The situation is that the US dominates (NATO). The sway of the American military and of the US defence industries is phenomenal. Our job is to articulate our vision, one of a different sort of future, one which may not meet with the ultimate endorsement of the US military.” Although he agrees with Robertson that a future Scottish defence force should draw on the Nordic, as opposed to the Anglo-American, defence model, he sees scope for a more radical defence settlement: “Personally, I’m in favour of minimal expenditure on the military. Scotland has huge issues with housing, for instance. If it’s a choice between a tank or a couple of hundred houses, I know which I’d favour.”

Finnie’s views reflect the feelings of many SNP members, but they chime with sentiments expressed by various pro-independence activists and organisations outside the party as well. Indeed, in recent months, some of the loudest criticisms of Robertson’s proposed change of policy have come from influential voices on the non-aligned nationalist left, such as independent MSP Margo Macdonald and commentator Pat Kane. Their reproaches reveal the broader conflict within the independence movement for which the dispute over NATO is something of a proxy: in contrast to the gradualist, even conservative, referendum strategy SNP chiefs seem intent on pursuing, large numbers of Yes Scotland campaigners believe independence should be sold on the basis of its transformative potential.

This attitude was summarised recently by Patrick Harvie, co-convener of the Scottish Green Party, who told a 10,000 strong pro-independence rally in Edinburgh last month that “a Scottish version of the status-quo will convince no-one (to vote Yes)”. Harvie’s remarks were a thinly disguised attack on the SNP’s plans for an independent Scotland to share a currency, a financial regulatory system and a monarchy with the rest of the UK - plans which have generated considerable opprobrium among the grassroots of independence activists. Many of those activists are bound to grow more disillusioned with the running of the Yes campaign if Robertson’s NATO motion is carried on Friday. With most surveys indicating support for independence remains pegged around the 30 per cent mark, Yes Scotland cannot afford its’ already rather shaky coalition to fracture further if it is to stand any chance of victory in 2014.

Robertson, however, is convinced the left is out of touch with public opinion on NATO: in May, YouGov published a poll which suggested 75 per cent of Scottish voters want an independent Scotland to remain part of the Alliance. And there is another aspect to the debate which the left may have overlooked. Opposition to break-up of Britain has an international, as well as a domestic, dimension. If other major Western powers decide Scottish independence is not in their strategic interests, it’s conceivable that leaders in, for instance, Washington or Paris might publicly warn against secession just prior to the referendum. Given how closely fought the ballot is likely to be, an intervention of this sort could be decisive. By signalling their support for NATO, perhaps some in the SNP believe they can minimise the risk of foreign interference in the referendum campaign.

In this context, the policy shift develops a clearer political rationale: the United States in particular has never shied away from trying to influence other countries’ internal affairs. One relevant example is that of President Clinton heaping praise on Canadian unity shortly before Quebec’s second referendum on independence in the mid-1990s. Yet, when considered alongside the SNP’s history of opposition to nuclear weapons, the moral arguments against NATO articulated by Finnie carry considerable force. It seems ethically inconsistent for a party which has for more than 40 years campaigned on a platform of unilateral nuclear disarmament to suddenly decide it supports an organisation explicitly committed to the doctrine of nuclear deterrence.

This clash of strategy and values will be at the heart of the debate in Perth tomorrow, one which is sure to test the remarkable organisational discipline and unity of purpose the SNP has maintained since it first won power at the Scottish Parliament in 2007. Defeat for the leadership remains doubtful but, given the intensity of feeling which exists among the anti-NATO alignment, can’t be ruled out entirely. Whichever way the vote goes, one thing is clear: critics of the SNP will no longer be able to claim the party refuses to confront the wicked issues of independence.

Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond gestures during a press conference in St Andrews House in Edinburgh. Photograph: Getty Images.

James Maxwell is a Scottish political journalist. He is based between Scotland and London.

Photo: Getty
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The DUP scored £1bn for just ten votes – so why be optimistic about our EU deal?

By March 2019, we’re supposed to have renegotiated 40 years of laws and treaties with 27 ­countries.

If Theresa May’s government negotiates with the European Union as well as it negotiated with the Democratic Unionist Party, it’s time to cross your fingers and desperately hope you have a secret ­Italian grandfather. After all, you’ll be wanting another passport when all this is over.

The Northern Irish party has played an absolute blinder, securing not only £1bn in extra funding for the region, but ensuring that the cash is handed over even if the power-sharing agreement or its Westminster confidence-and-supply arrangement fails.

At one point during the negotiations, the DUP turned their phones off for 36 hours. (Who in Westminster knew it was physically possible for a human being to do this?) Soon after, needling briefings emerged in the media that they were also talking to Labour and the Lib Dems. In the end, they’ve secured a deal where they support the government and get the Short money available only to opposition parties. I’m surprised Arlene Foster didn’t ask for a few of the nicer chairs in Downing Street on her way out.

How did this happen? When I talked to Sam McBride of the Belfast News Letter for a BBC radio programme days before the pact was announced, he pointed out that the DUP are far more used to this kind of rough and tumble than the Conservatives. Northern Irish politics is defined by deal-making, and the DUP need no reminder of what can happen to minnows in a multiparty system if they don’t convince their voters of their effectiveness.

On 8 June, the DUP and Sinn Fein squeezed out Northern Ireland’s smaller parties, such as the SDLP and the Alliance, from the region’s Westminster seats. (McBride also speculated on the possibility of trouble ahead for Sinn Fein, which ran its campaign on the premise that “abstentionism works”. What happens if an unpopular Commons vote passes that could have been defeated by its seven MPs?)

The DUP’s involvement in passing government bills, and the price the party has extracted for doing so, are truly transformative to British politics – not least for the public discussion about austerity. That turns out to be, as we suspected all along, a political rather than an economic choice. As such, it becomes much harder to defend.

Even worse for the government, southern Europe is no longer a basket case it can point to when it wants to scare us away from borrowing more. The structural problems of the eurozone haven’t gone away, but they have receded to the point where domestic voters won’t see them as a cautionary tale.

It is notable that the Conservatives barely bothered to defend their economic record during the election campaign, preferring to focus on Jeremy Corbyn’s spending plans. In doing so, they forgot that many of those who voted Leave last year – and who were confidently expected to “come home” to the Conservatives – did so because they wanted £350m a week for the NHS. The Tories dropped the Cameron-era argument of a “long-term economic plan” that necessitated short-term sacrifices. They assumed that austerity was the New Normal.

However, the £1bn the government has just found down the back of the sofa debunks that, and makes Conservative spending decisions for the rest of the parliament fraught. With such a slim majority, even a small backbench rebellion – certainly no bigger than the one that was brewing over tax-credit cuts until George Osborne relen­ted – could derail the Budget.

One of the worst points of Theresa May’s election campaign was on the BBC ­Question Time special, when she struggled to tell a nurse why her pay had risen so little since 2009. “There isn’t a magic money tree that we can shake that suddenly provides for everything that people want,” the Prime Minister admonished. Except, of course, there is a magic money tree, and May has just given it a damn good shake and scrumped all the cash-apples that fell from it.

That short-term gain will store up long-term pain, if the opposition parties are canny enough to exploit it. In the 2015 election, the claim that the SNP would demand bungs from Ed Miliband to prop up his government was a powerful argument to voters in England and Wales that they should vote Conservative. Why should their hospitals and schools be left to moulder while the streets of Paisley were paved in gold?

The attack also worked because it was a proxy for concerns about Miliband’s weakness as a leader. Well, it’s hard to think of a prime minister in a weaker position than May is right now. The next election campaign will make brutal use of this.

Northern Ireland might deserve a greater wodge of redistribution than the Barnett formula already delivers – it has lower life expectancy, wages and productivity than the British average – but the squalid way the money has been delivered will haunt the Tories. It also endangers one of the Conservatives’ crucial offers to their base: that they are the custodians of “sound money” and “living within our means”.

Labour, however, has not yet quite calibrated its response to the DUP’s new-found influence. Its early attacks focused on the party’s social conservatism, pointing out that it is resolutely anti-abortion and has repeatedly blocked the extension of equal marriage through “petitions of concern” at Stormont.

This tub-thumping might have fired up Labour’s socially progressive supporters in the rest of the UK, but it alienated some in Northern Ireland who resent their politicians being seen as fundamentalist yokels. (Only they get to call the DUP that: not Londoners who, until three weeks ago, thought Arlene Foster was the judge who got sacked from Strictly Come Dancing.)

And remember: all this was to get just ten MPs onside. By March 2019, we’re supposed to have renegotiated 40 years of legislation and treaties with 27 other European ­countries. Ha. Hahaha. Hahaha.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 29 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit plague

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