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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.

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

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.