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Stewart McDonald MP: In defence of an independent Scotland

Stewart McDonald pictured in his constituency. Pic: Anna Moffat

Stewart McDonald MP: In defence of an independent Scotland

 At high school, Stewart McDonald MP entered what he calls a “war of attrition” with his father over an SNP poster on his bedroom window.

The poster was given to him by Nicola Sturgeon, who was running in the first ever Scottish Parliament election, and was taped up over the window that faced out onto the busiest street in Govan, Glasgow. McDonald Senior, a self-described “working class Conservative”, didn’t share his son’s newly-found allegiance and would take it down each time the teenager left the house.

The quiet battle continued until voting day, when Sturgeon became one of the first MSPs to enter Holyrood. Now, two decades later, McDonald is the SNP’s defence spokesperson at Westminster, and he’s crafting the policy prospectus he hopes will ease a Sturgeon-led independent Scotland onto the world stage, providing a blueprint that will reassure other governments and make the newly-sovereign nation a sought-after security partner.

It’s a role that’s brought with it no small degree of scrutiny, and, sometimes, ridicule. Take a quick look at Twitter and you’ll find plenty of messages, often from pseudonymous accounts, dubbing McDonald a “holiday rep” thanks to a temporary job in Tenerife. He did one season on the island when he was 21, “absolutely loved it” and decided never to do it again, returning to Glasgow and becoming a staffer for then-MSP Anne McLaughlin, who is now McDonald’s benchmate in the Commons. Elsewhere, McDonald is derided as a “hawk” ready to step into any conflict. “There’s a caricature of me which exists in some people’s minds,” he says. “It gives me a laugh.”

Away from other people’s ideas of him, McDonald lives at the edge of his Glasgow South constituency with his partner. He’s 35 and says Westminster, where he’s worked since 2015, has “definitely” aged him. He grew up within spitting distance of hallowed Clyde shipbuilding yards and witnessed three launches as a kid, meeting BAE systems shop steward Jamie Webster “before he came up with the ‘nippy sweetie’ name for Nicola Sturgeon”. 

But that’s not what got him interested in defence, one of the most difficult of political briefs – that happened “kind of by accident”.

McDonald had joined the Transport Committee after becoming one of “the 56” group of SNP MPs elected in 2015, but big losses in the snap 2017 general election saw that number reduced to 35 and prompted a reorganisation of the group. McDonald wanted to do something outside his “comfort zone”, he tells Holyrood, and asked Ian Blackford for a shot on defence. “It was totally new to me and I knew I had to learn it. I was reading everything I could get my hands on, I went to every event to make contacts.”

Part of that outreach effort included forming relationships with Ukrainian figures, something that saw McDonald develop key knowledge of that country’s politics long before Vladimir Putin sent Russian tanks over the border. He saw the escalation coming, he says, but “would have preferred to be proven wrong”. “I never expected it to be quite as grotesque,” he says, “and the geopolitical impact to be so fast-paced.”

But the evolving nature of global geopolitics is part of the appeal of defence policy for McDonald. “It’s a policy area that’s very exciting because it  constantly changes and requires you to be on your game. It’s the best  portfolio, bar none.

“I’m looking to devise a policy platform for an independent Scotland. There’s no other job like it; there’s literally no other person in the party who gets to do it. With the exception of veterans, which is good, positive stuff, the rest of it falls entirely to myself and colleagues in the defence team.”

Defence will feature in one of the series of papers promised by Sturgeon as part of the latest push for a second independence referendum. The first, on economic comparisons with northern European nations, was unveiled at Bute House last month. McDonald has also been working on his own publications, including a series of recommendations on Nato’s strategy. Released in advance of the Madrid Summit, at which Nato allies met to finalise the official strategy, McDonald’s paper for the SNP argues for a “clear operational focus within the Euro-Atlantic area, with a strengthened and permanent presence on Nato’s eastern flank”.

Nato and the European Union are “the twin pillars that buttress the Euro-Atlantic security order and I believe that an independent Scotland’s interests will be best served as a full and active member of each organisation”, the MP wrote. “Until Scotland secures its independence, I will continue to advocate for the closest possible relationship between Nato and the EU – including pushing for a comprehensive defence and security agreement between the UK and the EU – and will continue to ensure that the SNP remains an engaged voice in the Euro-Atlantic debate now taking place. The moment demands no less.”

The SNP’s support for Nato was established at a 2012 party conference, but the party is also anti-Trident and there has recently been renewed debate about what that means, including amongst those independence supporters who oppose nukes and want an indy Scotland to scale back its defence footprint. 

During a recent visit to Washington DC, Sturgeon told the Brookings Institute that “membership of the EU and of Nato will be cornerstones of an independent Scotland’s security policy” and the country would “contribute to the collective security of our neighbours and allies”. But the party has also signed up to the UN’s Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, and its foreign affairs spokesperson, Alyn Smith MP, says the party is intent on removing nuclear weapons from Scotland “swiftly and safely”. UK Defence Minister Ben Wallace says this means Scottish independence will harm Nato by “removing part of its nuclear defence”.

However, McDonald’s paper argues that the 2022 Nato Strategic Concept requires a “clear commitment to strengthening the waning frameworks of nuclear non-proliferation” as well as “upholding and strengthening the rules-based international order”. “The Concept must signal that allies are willing to take action to uphold these interests and commit the Alliance to being more effective in creating consequences for breaches of international law,” it goes on.

And as part of their indy-prep initiative Project No Surprises, McDonald and Smith have been working on ways in which a sovereign Scotland can become a valuable defence partner. 

Suggestions include building on the cutting-edge research in our universities to develop recognised leadership in military medicine, becoming a pioneer in battlefield first aid, and gaining the same reputation in this area as Estonia has in cybersecurity or Finland has in hybrid threats.

“It simply wouldn’t be credible to not talk about what Scottish membership means for Nato and what Nato membership means for Scotland,” McDonald says. “If Nato is a burden-sharing alliance then how are we going to share in that burden? We will be a value-added Nato member.”

“In all the discussions we have had with parties, officials, retired ambassadors all around the European Union in different Nato countries,” he goes on, “they will be looking to see how our relationship with London develops – and how it starts. What I envisage is like the relationship Sweden and Finland have with each other, which is amazingly close. It’s a relationship much like the UK had with Ireland before Brexit broke everything up, when it almost wouldn’t need said that they were on the same page. 

“I think about the rest of the UK like we would think of any other ally, plus some more. Nothing can change geography and you can’t change history, and it would be in our interest to work with them.”

Despite seeking to foster a positive relationship outwith the Union, McDonald has little positive to say about the Westminster of now. His office is directly across from the Foreign Office and one floor above the Red Lion pub, and he’s not fond of either. But most of all, he hates PMQs. “I find it difficult to sit through,” he says. “I only go into the chamber when I need to, I find it a depressing circus. There’s a lot going on in the world and inside the chamber isn’t the best reflection of that.

“The madness of the [Theresa] May years was a good warm up for what we are doing now. It was vote after vote after meaningful vote. 

“We were all sent down there to knock lumps out of Westminster and it was all good fun trying to trip ministers up,” he says of his SNP colleagues. “I have got less patience for that.”

That first foray to London was made while Alex Salmond was still an MP. Any camaraderie the two men had is long gone, with McDonald amongst the most vocal critics of Salmond’s decision to host his TV talk show on Kremlin-backed RT. That show’s since been pulled, with Salmond, who now leads the Alba Party, saying he wouldn’t work with the broadcaster until the assault on Ukraine ends. McDonald remembers crying when Salmond stood down after the No majority was announced in 2014 but, in 2017, found himself amongst a small group of SNP MPs who met with ambassadors from Baltic states to “immediately distance ourselves from this thing”, meaning their former boss’s association with the Russian state-controlled broadcaster. 

The former SNP leader modernised and professionalised the party, building Yes support up to 45 per cent and becoming an independence figurehead. He is now “owed none of that,” McDonald says. “Most EU states are not strangers to has-been old men embarrassing themselves.

“Think about the pain that caused the party; our first ever First Minister torched his own reputation. We now have a wider appeal and a leader [who is] not driven by ego. I genuinely believe we’ll deliver a Yes vote in a referendum.”

The plan was to “make RT as toxic as possible, so that if you do go on it, your own colleagues will call you out”. “I like to think I played a small part in the Sputnik offices in Edinburgh shutting down,” he goes on, but doesn’t “think for a minute” that Russian authorities have “lost interest in Scotland”.

Misinformation in the form of bots, trolls, AI deepfakes and mainstream fake news are all on McDonald’s defence brief radar. AI is a “minefield”, bots, trolls and disinformation pose threats to all political parties and public institutions, and the US Capitol riots of January 2021 are “at the extreme end of what happens when you don’t deal with it early”, he says, but “any attempt to deal with this at source will ultimately fail”, as will any major international treaty that doesn’t include Russia or China. “The best thing countries can do is build up information resilience,” he says.

“We need to equip people to not fall victim to hostile online disinformation. Finland and Latvia understood that very early and that corresponds with high levels of trust in public institutions. That doesn’t mean they believe everything they are told; quite the opposite, actually. The starting point is understanding that it’s a threat that’s very real.”

Growing up in a jannie’s house attached to a city secondary, McDonald had it “drummed in that the SNP were the Scottish Nose Pickers,” but he’d “always” believed in independence, he says, something that predated real knowledge about politics. “I remember being quite embarrassed that I didn’t know very much so I started to buy newspapers and I wrote to all the political parties. The SNP sent me brochures and brochures of stuff.” It was persuasive, McDonald found, and he watched the party’s 2006 conference online, joining later that week.

Entering the party’s youth wing, he found friends in Jenny Gilruth, Alison Thewliss, David Linden – all current parliamentarians. His dad is now “very proud” of his success, McDonald says, but remains “no fan” of the SNP, which leads to lots of “good father-son banter”. But there is, at least, one silver lining. “Mercifully he doesn’t live in my constituency, so I don’t have to worry about him not voting for me,” the MP says. 

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