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.

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Does the UK care enough about climate change to admit it is part of the problem?

The government’s energy policies make can make it hard to decipher its commitment to emissions reduction.

“People tell me it’s ridiculous to be flying for a climate change project but you have to get real with it, I mean I can’t cycle across the Southern ocean,” says Daniel Price, an environmental scientist from London. As founder of Pole-to-Paris, Price is about to complete a 17,000km bike ride from the Antarctic to the Arc de Triomphe.

Price came up with the idea in an effort to raise public awareness of COP21, the UN Climate Change Conference taking place in Paris next week. During the trip he’s faced a succession of set-backs: from the discovery that boats were prohibitively expensive, to diplomatic tensions scuppering his Russian visa plans. Yet the darkest moments were when he became overwhelmed by the magnitude of his own mission. “There were difficult times when I just thought, ‘What is the point of this’?” he says. “Cycling round the world is nowhere near enough to engage people.” 

As world leaders descend on Paris, many questions remain unanswered. Not least how much support developing nations will receive in tackling the effects of climate change. New research commissioned by Oxfam claims that such costs could rise to £1.7tn a year by 2050. But with cuts kicking in at home, the need to deliver “climate justice” abroad feels like a bigger ask than ever.

So does Britain really care enough about climate change to accept its full part in this burden? The government’s energy policies make can make it hard to decipher its commitment to emissions reduction. In September, however, it did pledge £5.8bn from the foreign aid fund to helping poorer nations combat climate change (twice that promised by China and the United States). And there’s evidence to suggest that we, as a public, may also care more than we think.

In America attitudes are much darker; in the dismissive words of Donald Trump “It’s called the weather”. Not least since, as a recent study proves, over the last twenty years corporations have systematically spread scepticism about the science. “The contrarian efforts have been so effective," says the author Justin Farrell, a Yale sociologist, "that they have made it difficult for ordinary Americans to even know who to trust.” 

And what about in China, the earth's biggest polluter? Single-party rule and the resulting lack of public discussion would seem to be favouring action on the environment. The government has recently promised to reach "peak" emissions by 2030, to quadruple solar installations, and to commit $3.1bn to help low-income countries adapt to the changing world. Christiana Figueres, the UN’s chief climate official, has even lauded the country for taking “undisputed leadership” on climate change mitigation.

Yet this surge of policy could mask the most troubling reality of all: that, when it comes to climate change, the Chinese are the least concerned citizenship in the world. Only 18 per cent of Chinese see the issue as a very serious problem, down 23 percentage points from five years ago, and 36 points behind the global median.

A new study by political economist Dr Alex Lo has concluded that the country’s reduced political debate could be to blame for the lack of concern. “In China popular environmentalism is biased towards immediate environmental threats”, such as desertification and pollution, Lo writes, “giving little impetus to a morally driven climate change movement”.

For the international community, all is well and good as long as the Chinese government continues along its current trajectory. But without an engaged public to hold it to account there’s always a chance its promises may fade into thin air.

So perhaps the UK’s tendency to moan about how hard it is to care about the (seemingly) remote impacts of climate change isn’t all bad. At least we know it is something worth moaning about. And perhaps we care more than we let on to each other.

Statistics published this summer by the Department of Energy and Climate Change reveal that three quarters of the British public support subsidies for renewable energy, despite only 10 per cent thinking that the figure is that high. “Even if the public think the consensus is not there, there are encouraging signs that it is,” says Liz Callegari, Head of Campaigns at WWF. “Concern for climate change is growing.”

As Price puts it, “You can think of climate change as this kind of marathon effort that we have to address and in Paris we just have to get people walking across the start line together”. Maybe then we will all be ready to run.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.