Nicola Sturgeon was unequivocal on the morning of 24 February in her condemnation of Russia’s attack on Ukraine. “Overnight developments in Ukraine – however anticipated – are appalling and horrific,” she tweeted. “The Kremlin must face the severest consequences for this unprovoked aggression. And the world must stand in solidarity with the people of Ukraine #StandWithUkraine.”
On 23 February, she and Angus Robertson, the SNP’s External Affairs Secretary, lodged a motion at Holyrood calling for Boris Johnson to intensify sanctions. Scotland stood ready to support Ukraine’s “people, Government and Parliament… in any way [it] can.”
The SNP has, so far, behaved impeccably in relation to the tragedy unfolding in eastern Europe. As it should, you might think. But the party has not always been a reliable Western ally at times of international crisis. Alex Salmond, Sturgeon’s predecessor as leader, infamously described the Nato bombing of Serbia in 1999 as “unpardonable folly”. He sought repeatedly to have Tony Blair face criminal proceedings over the Iraq War. His government released from a Scottish prison the man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing, to condemnation from the US and UK governments. Salmond, like Donald Trump, has spoken of his “admiration” for Putin.
Since leaving office, the former first minister has continued on his wilful course, controversially presenting a TV show on the Kremlin-sponsored station RT. His new Alba Party, while condemning the violation of Ukrainian sovereignty, has stressed the need for Russia’s own security interests to be taken into account.
Some might have expected the nationalists to align with the far left and Stop the War in seeking to turn on the UK’s stance, regardless of what it is. Instead, one Tory MP expressed his surprise at the nationalists’ rigorous position on Ukraine. But today’s SNP is not Salmond’s SNP. Most of its elected politicians have little time for their former leader, view him as an embarrassment, and wish he would depart the public stage for good. At this time of global conflagration, they want the independence movement to speak with a unified voice – there must be no sympathy for or “understanding” of Vladimir Putin. They also point out that at the time of the 2018 Salisbury poisonings, the party backed the stance of the British government, and speak with contempt of the prevarications put forward then by Jeremy Corbyn.
This is of a piece with a great deal of hard work by key party figures in recent years. Both Alyn Smith, the SNP’s foreign affairs spokesperson, and Stewart McDonald, its defence spokesperson, have rethought and redrafted the party’s foreign and defence posture to align more closely with the mainstream of European and Western opinion. They have visited countless countries, militaries and diplomats to gather information and enhance its credibility on international affairs. Today, the SNP is less about student politics and posturing, and more about an approach based on realism.
“We are not an aspiring NGO,” said McDonald. “We are an aspiring state and must think and act like one. The Ukraine situation is an easy choice between good and bad.” Party sources admit that it has previously “not given the most sophisticated thought” to foreign policy. Now, claims one MP, it could be regarded as “the most anti-Putin party in the UK”.
Ironically, this came about as a result of Salmond’s decision to throw in his lot with RT. His former colleagues were horrified, and actively sought to reassure leaders in the Baltic states and Ukraine that the party had not sanctioned Salmond’s step and “took a very dim view” of it. Key SNP figures were invited to eastern Ukraine in 2018 to see the situation with Russia for themselves, and ongoing alliances and friendships were formed.
The party has also strengthened its support for Nato, an organisation that remains controversial among some members. The SNP is anti-nuclear weapons, and has said that in the event of independence Trident must be removed from Faslane on the Clyde. McDonald and others, who remain anti-nuke, nevertheless want a separate Scottish state to remain under Nato’s umbrella, and are aware they would have to earn the right. This could mean majoring on battlefield medicine as the national contribution, they said, based on Scotland’s existing expertise and strong university research capabilities. “Nato is a burden-sharing alliance,” said a source. “We have to ensure that if Scotland votes “Yes” next time we are not strangers on the international stage, and that our values and interests are known.”
Last year, the SNP had a foreign affairs, security and defence planning day in St Andrews, where it was addressed by experts and academics. The party was told it had to do better with two audiences specifically: it needed to talk more and engage better with the international community, but also, crucially, with the remainder of the UK that would exist following independence. One perhaps surprising view that is developing in nationalist leadership circles is that an independent Scotland would almost always be a strong foreign policy ally of the remnant UK. This is being shaped into what is tentatively called the “good neighbourhood doctrine”. This might involve partnering with the rest of the the UK in, say, signing security treaties with other countries. Party sources can foresee Scottish troops being part of the UK’s Joint Expeditionary Force. “We will have the security of our own island in common,” said an insider. “Why would we not be allies?”
If this seems like a radical change from the Salmond years, it is. “Nicola Sturgeon is very different from Alex Salmond,” said a senior SNP figure. “Salmond often made a pig’s ear of our positioning on foreign policy. In the Ukraine situation she can see who is the innocent party and is willing to come out and say it.”
There remain obvious questions over independence and its impact on Scotland’s defence industry and international clout. But the SNP is seeking to carve out a space that would allow a newly independent nation to be a useful, constructive player on the global stage while remaining true to its values. There is a long way to go but the Ukraine crisis offers a promising start.
[See also: How will Russia’s invasion of Ukraine affect domestic politics?]