SNP majority reduced to one as two MSPs resign over pro-Nato stance

Blow for Alex Salmond as John Finnie and Jean Urquhart leave in protest at change of defence policy.

After the SNP voted narrowly in favour of abandoning its 30-year-old policy of opposition to Nato membership at its conference last weekend (see James Maxwell's recent piece for more on the background to the dispute), two of the party's MSPs, John Finnie and Jean Urquhart, have just resigned in protest. In their resignation statements, both argue that the party cannot support membership of a nuclear-armed military alliance whilst simultaneously demanding the removal of Trident from Scottish waters.

John Finnie said:

I cannot belong to a party that quite rightly does not wish to hold nuclear weapons on its soil, but wants to join a first-strike nuclear alliance.

Although I envisage that I will continue to share common ground with the SNP on many issues, I cannot in good conscience continue to take the party whip.

Whilst Jean Urquhart said:

The issue of nuclear disarmament and removing Trident from Scotland's waters is a red line issue for me, and I could not remain committed to a party that has committed itself to retaining membership of Nato.

We are both steadfast in our belief that Scotland should be an independent country, and will actively and positively campaign for a yes vote in 2014. We believe in an independent Scotland, not a Nato-dependent Scotland.

Significantly, their resignations mean that the SNP now has a majority of just one in the Scottish Parliament. The party won 69 seats in the 2011 election (giving it a majority of four) but lost one backbencher when Tricia Marwick became Presiding Officer and lost another when Bill Walker was suspended from the party over allegations of domestic abuse. The departure of Finnie and Urquhart leaves it with 65 out of 129 seats, a majority of one. However, Alex Salmond, who has suffered the first major revolt against his leadership since the party's remarkable victory in 2011, will hope that he can continue to count on their support in most votes as independents.

In response to their resignations, the SNP leader said:

I'm saddened that Jean and John have decided to resign from the party. They have been excellent servants to the SNP, and I'm grateful to them for their tireless efforts.

We had an excellent and democratic debate at party conference last Friday, and agreed a policy of reaffirming our opposition to nuclear weapons as a non-nuclear member of the Nato alliance - a position that will be accepted by the party as a whole.

Jean and John have indicated to me that they will continue to support the Government from the back benches, and I welcome that. I also look forward to working with them both in the campaign to achieve a Yes vote in Scotland's referendum in 2014.

Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond speaks at the SNP Annual Conference last weekend. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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The big problem for the NHS? Local government cuts

Even a U-Turn on planned cuts to the service itself will still leave the NHS under heavy pressure. 

38Degrees has uncovered a series of grisly plans for the NHS over the coming years. Among the highlights: severe cuts to frontline services at the Midland Metropolitan Hospital, including but limited to the closure of its Accident and Emergency department. Elsewhere, one of three hospitals in Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland are to be shuttered, while there will be cuts to acute services in Suffolk and North East Essex.

These cuts come despite an additional £8bn annual cash injection into the NHS, characterised as the bare minimum needed by Simon Stevens, the head of NHS England.

The cuts are outlined in draft sustainability and transformation plans (STP) that will be approved in October before kicking off a period of wider consultation.

The problem for the NHS is twofold: although its funding remains ringfenced, healthcare inflation means that in reality, the health service requires above-inflation increases to stand still. But the second, bigger problem aren’t cuts to the NHS but to the rest of government spending, particularly local government cuts.

That has seen more pressure on hospital beds as outpatients who require further non-emergency care have nowhere to go, increasing lifestyle problems as cash-strapped councils either close or increase prices at subsidised local authority gyms, build on green space to make the best out of Britain’s booming property market, and cut other corners to manage the growing backlog of devolved cuts.

All of which means even a bigger supply of cash for the NHS than the £8bn promised at the last election – even the bonanza pledged by Vote Leave in the referendum, in fact – will still find itself disappearing down the cracks left by cuts elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.