The SNP meeting arms dealers is unlikely to stir voters – but will enrage party members

Scottish voters are more likely to see Raytheon as a major employer than a moral quandary. 

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The meetings between Scotland’s business minister Paul Wheelhouse and Raytheon, a manufacturer of, among other things, bombs now falling on Yemen, are undoubtedly off-brand for the Scottish National Party. For years, the party has been aligned with anti-intervention movements, from opposition to Iraq, opposition to Trident, and the rather lacklustre cry of “bairns not bombs” when sending British forces to Syria seemed like a real possibility.

The Scottish government has already denied the Sunday Mail’s accusation of “gross hypocrisy” (it also calls the suggestion that taxpayer money ended up funding the manufacture of munitions “false”). It says the meeting with “Raytheon, a major employer in Fife” was published on the government’s website in June 2018, and the aim was to talk about opportunities outside defence. “How do we encourage companies to ‘turn spears into ploughshares’ if we don’t agree to even speak to them about diversification when asked?” Wheelhouse demanded on Twitter. “Damned by the BBC/Lab/Greens/SundayMail if you do. Damned by Co./BBC/Lab/Unions/hundreds of workers if you don’t. Welcome to Government.”

Scottish voters are more likely to see Raytheon as a major employer than a moral quandary. For all the SNP’s anti-interventionism, 40 per cent of Scots think Trident should be maintained, a proportion not dissimilar to that of the British public as a whole (they are, however, also more likely to be opposed). A third of local jobs are in defence. Raytheon’s manufacturing base in Fife employs 560 people, according to the company, and thousands campaigned to save the nearby RAF Leuchars airbase (it has reopened as an army base). In Scotland’s rural and post-industrial areas, the defence industry means food on the table.

The SNP as a party of government could probably afford to not only ignore the Sunday Mail splash but also dispense with opposition-style anti-intervention politics. There are two reasons it doesn’t. First, defence is a preserve of Westminster and therefore a piñata for the smashing. But second, anti-intervention matters to a vocal section of the SNP membership. One newly formed SNP grassroots campaign, Neutral Scotland, responded to the Sunday Mail article by declaring: “It is right and proper that we as a party rigorously oppose British arms sales to Saudi Arabia and RAF assistance to the Saudi military in their bombing raids – but that is not enough. It is ultimately with arms manufactured right here in Scotland that school buses full of children are blown up, and that cannot happen in our name.”

Neutral Scotland does not just frown on arms manufacturers existing in Scotland; it opposes the SNP’s 2012 decision to drop opposition to Nato membership. Usman Akhtar, the president of Strathclyde University’s SNP branch, who supports Neutral Scotland, told me: “Trident is pretty key to the SNP ideology – it might as well be next to independence.” He acknowledges that “on the street I have never really found it come up”, but nevertheless estimates “90 per cent” of SNP members are opposed.

For all that the SNP is painting the Sunday Mail splash as an attack by Scottish Labour, the party leads its left-wing rival comfortably in the polls. For more than a decade, it has successfully exploited the fact it has both the authority of a party in power and the moral high ground of one in opposition. Since 2014, though, the leadership has struggled to balance out the idealism of its party members with a more pragmatic eye on public opinion as a whole. It recovered from its 2017 election disappointment by putting an emphasis on getting on with the business of government. The problem for the SNP is that many of its members have different priorities. 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.