The furore in the letters pages of Scotland’s newspapers that has predictably followed the revelation that the SNP is to debate the issue of membership (or not) of Nato at its National Council gathering in June is tired, inflated and reactionary.
Accusations of yet another Salmond U-turn are being bandied about as evidence of the SNP’s ability to sway with the wind as long as it brings the party votes in a referendum – but, frankly, it rings a little hollow on this particular issue.
The SNP’s attitude to Nato was formed during its many years in opposition.
Years when it could pick away at the scab of Britishness, years when it could seethe at Scotland not having a seat at the top table [on anything] and years away from getting within sniffing distance of independence.
It was easy to be against something when you weren’t part of it, but the SNP’s opposition to the fundamental principle of Nato as a nuclear alliance was a genuine, heartfelt belief against Trident and was right for its time.
However, seeking to create a real, live independent state is a very different ball game from playing fantasy politics from the back benches; and it is one in which the strategic position of Scotland and the strategic interests of others has to be taken into account.
Surely it is a sign of the maturity of the political journey that the party has taken that it can, as a party of government and one that may lead Scotland into independence, debate as difficult and as sensitive an issue as this one at this point in its career trajectory when a foot wrong could see a referendum lost.
But the musings about Nato membership are not just for internal party consumption or even UK-wide consideration. It is part of the wider global SNP charm offensive by adopting a ‘don’t frighten the horses’ view of constitutional change, and showing that the party doesn’t wish to rock any international community boats.
In fact, Scotland is Nato’s aircraft carrier. The best in the world. From it Nato can intercept any attempt by the Russian Northern Fleet to break into the Atlantic, and threaten the lifeline between the USA and Europe. The Cold War may be over but Putin is now boosting the military power of Russia. Disruption through secession from any part of Nato, especially such a geo-strategic one as Scotland, will make powerful opponents of independence.
How could this opposition be exercised? Not by overt threats from the USA, which Salmond has often had to field, but from blocking measures by Nato’s EU member states.
When the issue of automatic entry to the EU comes up they hold the key to destroying the SNP campaign.
So, on Nato, what is the point in making enemies who can damage the chances of you fulfilling your political goal when it’seasier not to?
Ah, but, the purists say, Nato is pro-nuclear and the SNP is not and that will be what exercises party members in June.
But Alex Salmond’s SNP has been one of enviable discipline; that what Salmond says goes.
While it is true that some supposed changes of party line appear to have been thought of on the hoof with even government ministers taken aback by some of the FM’s more recent proclamations, it remains a common ministerial mantra to say the ‘membership will not be surprised’ when questioned on apparent policy shifts like the continuation of sterling or the position on the Queen.
I am as cynical as the next person as to what this newly created ‘social union’ idea is all about. I have wondered what the point would be of voting for an independence that looks much like the status quo and I have questioned the credibility of a party that views policy change like a pick ‘n’ mix stand depending on the prevailing view, but I don’t see a debate about future membership of Nato in the same category as which bank, currency or royalty we would assume.
There are some beliefs that stand the test of time but there are others that need to be reassessed in the context of time, place and reason. Being part of Nato is one of them.
Having said that, the party’s stance on Nato must not be confused with its long-held antinuclear platform. And if Nato membership would necessitate Trident remaining in the Clyde then I believe that would be too high a price for the party to pay and I would expect dissent.
As recently as last Thursday in the Chamber Salmond was describing the nuclear deterrent as abhorrent, and he was rewarded with uproarious applause from his benches for denouncing it. This places the party in a corner.
So the issue cannot just be membership of Nato when the party is so clearly against nuclear weapons under any circumstances. There is no chance of the USA or France giving up those weapons (leaving aside whether the UK does or not). So, given that Scotland has hosted Trident on the Clyde for 50 years already and it was never going to be manhandled out of the water on the day after Independence Day, maybe the compromise will be this; be a member of Nato, remain against nuclear, but give Trident time to re-locate, meanwhile pocketing a fair rent?
No party can ever stay the same. Priorities and positions have to change with the times. And, as the Liberal Democrats will testify, the public will in the end forgive and understand changes in policy but they will not accept broken promises.