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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Like it or hate it, it doesn't matter: Brexit is happening, and we've got to make a success of it

It's time to stop complaining and start campaigning, says Stella Creasy.

A shortage of Marmite, arguments over exporting jam and angry Belgians. And that’s just this month.  As the Canadian trade deal stalls, and the government decides which cottage industry its will pick next as saviour for the nation, the British people are still no clearer getting an answer to what Brexit actually means. And they are also no clearer as to how they can have a say in how that question is answered.

To date there have been three stages to Brexit. The first was ideological: an ever-rising euroscepticism, rooted in a feeling that the costs the compromises working with others require were not comparable to the benefits. It oozed out, almost unnoticed, from its dormant home deep in the Labour left and the Tory right, stoked by Ukip to devastating effect.

The second stage was the campaign of that referendum itself: a focus on immigration over-riding a wider debate about free trade, and underpinned by the tempting and vague claim that, in an unstable, unfair world, control could be taken back. With any deal dependent on the agreement of twenty eight other countries, it has already proved a hollow victory.

For the last few months, these consequences of these two stages have dominated discussion, generating heat, but not light about what happens next. Neither has anything helped to bring back together those who feel their lives are increasingly at the mercy of a political and economic elite and those who fear Britain is retreating from being a world leader to a back water.

Little wonder the analogy most commonly and easily reached for by commentators has been that of a divorce. They speculate our coming separation from our EU partners is going to be messy, combative and rancorous. Trash talk from some - including those in charge of negotiating -  further feeds this perception. That’s why it is time for all sides to push onto Brexit part three: the practical stage. How and when is it actually going to happen?

A more constructive framework to use than marriage is one of a changing business, rather than a changing relationship. Whatever the solid economic benefits of EU membership, the British people decided the social and democratic costs had become too great. So now we must adapt.

Brexit should be as much about innovating in what we make and create as it is about seeking to renew our trading deals with the world. New products must be sought alongside new markets. This doesn’t have to mean cutting corners or cutting jobs, but it does mean being prepared to learn new skills and invest in helping those in industries that are struggling to make this leap to move on. The UK has an incredible and varied set of services and products to offer the world, but will need to focus on what we do well and uniquely here to thrive. This is easier said than done, but can also offer hope. Specialising and skilling up also means we can resist those who want us to jettison hard-won environmental and social protections as an alternative. 

Most accept such a transition will take time. But what is contested is that it will require openness. However, handing the public a done deal - however well mediated - will do little to address the division within our country. Ensuring the best deal in a way that can garner the public support it needs to work requires strong feedback channels. That is why transparency about the government's plans for Brexit is so important. Of course, a balance needs to be struck with the need to protect negotiating positions, but scrutiny by parliament- and by extension the public- will be vital. With so many differing factors at stake and choices to be made, MPs have to be able and willing to bring their constituents into the discussion not just about what Brexit actually entails, but also what kind of country Britain will be during and after the result - and their role in making it happen. 

Those who want to claim the engagement of parliament and the public undermines the referendum result are still in stages one and two of this debate, looking for someone to blame for past injustices, not building a better future for all. Our Marmite may be safe for the moment, but Brexit can’t remain a love it or hate it phenomenon. It’s time for everyone to get practical.