Rebel with a cause
It is nearly a year on since the relative calm and unity within the SNP was shattered when the party publicly debated changing its policy on membership of NATO.
While still vehemently opposed to nuclear weapons and in favour of scrapping Trident, party leaders appealed to conference to support a future independent Scotland being part of a mutual defence alliance whose members are part of a ‘nuclear umbrella’.
The vote was won, the policy changed, but the debate showed that there were some members who were uncomfortable with the decision.
While some may have been content to bite their tongues and accept the vote had gone against them, there were two who felt that this was a change of policy they could not stand for and quit.
John Finnie and Jean Urquhart were both list MSPs for the Highlands and Islands and both elected in the SNP landslide of 2011 and their only experience of parliament was as part of a majority Nationalist government.
Finnie spoke to Holyrood as politicians prepared to return to parliament after the summer recess. The year before, the ex-policeman, who had served with Lothian and Borders and Northern Constabulary, as well as the Scottish Police Federation, had been parliamentary liaison officer to Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill.
Now the two rebels are part of an affiliation of independent and Green politicians – with the same number of MSPs as the Lib Dems.
“I think it’s important to say this wasn’t some sort of petulant act based on a brief debate,” says Finnie. “I’ve mixed feelings, in one respect, but it was a terribly easy decision to make in another.
“I had been a member of the party for four decades and I felt that as a list MSP, I wasn’t elected on a personal vote – I was elected on a manifesto [based on] the commitments the party had given.
“One of those long-standing commitments [that] enjoys a lot of support in the Highlands and Islands was that position on NATO and all the consequences of the position on NATO, and it just wasn’t tenable for me.”
He adds: “Parties, like life, are about consensus and it would be naive to assume that everyone agrees 100 per cent about every policy; there were a number of policies I didn’t agree with, notably the position on a head of state and, more recently, corporation tax. But there comes a point where I couldn’t put myself on a platform and advocate [the position on NATO].”
Finnie says his anti-nuclear stance is longstanding, dating back to his teens in Argyll in the 1970s and calls to remove the US military from the Holy Loch.
“I do recall talking vividly if there were a strike on there, how many seconds later it would be that the town of Oban would be wiped out,” he says.
“You know, people vote for political parties for a number of reasons and not everybody who voted for the Scottish National Party voted for independence, but a lot of people who support the world peace movement and disarmament, voted for the SNP because they saw them as a genuine opportunity to make the world a safer place.”
The issue of NATO has been raised again, with doubts cast by NATO officials in August over whether an independent Scotland could gain membership, while the current debate over weapons being kept on the Clyde remains.
Finnie says he is not surprised and believes membership of a first-strike nuclear alliance and wanting to get rid of nuclear weapons from your territory are incompatible.
He says the decision not to consult NATO officials ahead of the all-important SNP conference debate was a “fundamental flaw”.
“I’ll work with everyone and anyone to secure the removal of nuclear weapons because they are an abomination,” he adds.
“First and foremost, I am an internationalist, then I am a nationalist. We are global citizens and have a responsibility to everyone else and there was a very, very rich prize to be gained from independence and that was our ability to disarm the UK arsenal. The prize would have been disarming the UK and that would have been a great start to making the world a safer place and having public money spent on more important things like health, education and social care.”
The decision taken by Finnie and Urquhart was a brave one, in its wake, he said there was a “knee-jerk” reaction from some who said they should stand down.
Elected as a party list candidate – not on a personal ticket – critics said that they should have done “the honourable thing” and let the next placed SNP candidates take their place.
But Finnie says: “I personally don’t see it like that. If, for argument’s sake, instead of that policy the decision had been to remove the longstanding commitment for independence for Scotland, people would say ‘that’s not what I voted for’.
“The thing is, I have to look at this face in the mirror in the morning and in life, people do what they think is right.
“There’s a great phrase, ‘acting in good faith’. I feel I’ve acted in good faith in everything I’ve done.”
And when asked if the NATO row has damaged the SNP and its aim of independence, he says: “I think people will form their view on what’s best for Scotland on the basis of the important things for them – housing, care, education and proper use of money – that may include other issues, like not wasting it on replacing it on Trident and illegal wars.
“The independence debate is at a fine point and it’s there due to the efforts, including those of the people in the Scottish National Party.
“I think most reasonable observers would remark there are comparable numbers who are resolutely voting yes and resolutely voting no and there’s a greater number in the middle who are undecided and yet to be persuaded.
“What they will be persuaded by is calm reflection of priorities and issues based on facts, not just shouting at each other and not either side getting carried away with trivia and irrelevances. I am relaxed, but not complacent, that things are going in the right direction.”
Finnie is a native Highlander, and served much of his 30-year career with the police at Northern Constabulary, first as a dog handler, then from 1992 as a full-time secretary to the branch of the Scottish Police Federation. But his father was originally from Edinburgh who had moved north in 1950 to work for the Forestry Commission.
Growing up in Lochaber with no professional football teams, Finnie grew up supporting Heart of Midlothian and shinty side Lochaber Camanachd, with yearly trips back to Edinburgh to see the team play.
So there was a certain irony that his first posting as a beat officer was on the streets of Leith, where he would often find himself walking round the track at Easter Road, home of city rivals, Hibs.
He is firmly behind the plans under way for fans to take control of the club – after years of financial turmoil left the historic club facing oblivion. And said the Foundation of Hearts could be a really positive move.
“A number of years ago, there was outrage when the club crest was changed by a previous owner. The idea that an individual can own what is effectively a community asset is alien to me and alien to a number of other people,” he says.
“The rich man’s plaything approach has failed not only the Hearts, but many other clubs. I think there’s an opportunity here to get things on an even keel with regards to finances and to have genuine fan involvement. I think fan power is important and I commend the work of Foundation of Hearts.”
He returned north in 1979, though wanting to bring up a family in the Highlands and after retiring from the police in 2006, he swapped “politics with a small p” of the Scottish Police Federation for first, Highlands Council, then the Scottish Parliament when the SNP marched to victory in 2011.
Even though the independence referendum will be the most immediate issue pressing on most politicians’ minds, many will also be thinking ahead to the next Scottish elections in 2016 and whether they will be standing again.
Finnie though says he is not thinking that far ahead: “If you’d asked me two years ago would I envisage leaving the party I joined as a teenager, which was then forming a majority government, I would have burst out laughing – you never say ‘never’.
“I’m thinking mainly and almost exclusively about current business and that is the casework I have and the independence referendum.”
But if he were to stand, would it be as an independent or rejoining the party? “I find it hard to envisage that I would rejoin the SNP,” he says “and the next election is too far ahead. I quite frankly don’t know.”