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Allan Massie: One u-turn too far feels like betrayal for purists

Alex Salmonds SNP has changed tack on issues from sterling and the monarchy to Nato. Picture: Neil Hanna

Alex Salmonds SNP has changed tack on issues from sterling and the monarchy to Nato. Picture: Neil Hanna

IN seeking to make independence more palatable with yet another compromise, the SNP is in danger of alienating the idealists in its ranks, writes Allan Massie

“You turn if you want to. The lady’s not for turning.” Margaret Thatcher’s line, supplied to her by the playwright Ronald Millar, is famous. It helped to fix her image; resolute and unchanging. Now it appears that, unlike the Lady, the Laddie is for turning. The motion on Nato that will be presented to the SNP national conference is the latest – but perhaps not the last – of the U-turns approved by Alex Salmond. The SNP’s position on Nato has been clear for donkeys’ years. An independent Scotland would not belong to the nuclear alliance.

Now the party will debate the following resolution: “The SNP wishes Scotland to fulfil its treaty obligations with the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. An SNP government will maintain Nato membership subject to an agreement that Scotland will not host nuclear weapons and Nato respects the right of members only to take part in UN-sanctioned operations.”

There are two things to be said about the wording. The first is that, arguably, Scotland has no treaty obligations with Nato, because Scotland is not a signatory of the treaty which brought the alliance into being. It was signed by the Labour foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin, on behalf of the government of the United Kingdom from which, if the SNP has its way, Scotland will break away from. I say “arguably”, because if Scotland is regarded as a secession state, it would, as Peter Jones explained in this paper yesterday, “inherit none of the UK’s international rights and obligations”. If, on the other hand, it is a successor one, it would indeed continue to be a member of Nato. Unless it chose to withdraw from the alliance.

Second, the resolution offers an uneasy and perhaps dishonourable 
compromise. Scotland will shelter under Nato’s nuclear umbrella “subject to an agreement that Scotland will not host nuclear weapons.” In fairness to Mr Salmond and to the party’s defence spokesman, Angus Robertson, who has pressed for this change of policy for a long time, the wording and the compromise are unavoidable. SNP members may grit their teeth and reluctantly accept membership of Nato, but asking them to agree that Trident should still be based in Scotland would be too much for them to swallow. Too much for now, anyway. Yet, if the change with regard to membership of Nato is accepted, the Trident submarines are likely to remain at their Faslane base for quite some time. Certainly, nobody should expect the Royal Navy to be served with an eviction notice on Day Two of independence. It would indeed take time to remove Trident even if Scotland was no longer a Nato member.

The U-turn over Nato may be called prudent. Defence may not come high in people’s priorities. Nevertheless, the suspicion that an independent Scotland would be inadequately defended, and therefore at risk, worries some voters. Continued membership of Nato is calculated to reassure them. There is, admittedly, no evident external – military as distinct from terrorist – threat to Scottish, or indeed British, security now; but the future, even more than the past, is another country where they do things differently.

If the change of policy is sensible and also designed to remove one 
objection to independence that many waverers may have, it will nevertheless dismay many of the most committed Nationalists. Little by little, it seems that much of what was SNP policy is being whittled away in order to woo the uncommitted by persuading them that independence will mean no big change. Scotland will keep the monarchy, will keep sterling, will leave control of monetary policy with the Bank of England, and now will remain a member of the Nato alliance. The social union with the other parts of the United Kingdom will survive independence, intact and unaffected by the break-up of the UK.

This is all reassuring. It may all be good politics. It may boost the Yes vote in the referendum. Yet all these concessions to the views and prejudices of uncommitted middle-Scotland must be disappointing to many who have worked for the SNP for long, hard years as the party moved from the fringe to the centre of Scottish politics. It must, one would think, fill them with dismay. It will surely anger some. Was it for this, they may wonder, that we struggled for so long? For an independent Scotland barely distinguishable from the country that was part of the British state? Who can be surprised if the true believers are beginning to feel that their leaders have made too many compromises? Who can be surprised if they feel betrayed?

This latest U-turn will surely fuel the suspicion, already provoked by the talk of having a second question on the referendum paper, that the leadership may be content to accept further devolution and is no longer wholeheartedly committed to real independence. That suspicion has already been expressed by the former SNP leader Gordon Wilson and by Margo MacDonald who has urged Salmond to drop any plan to have a devo-max question on the paper.

What we are seeing is a conflict in the Nationalist camp between the pragmatists and the idealists.

That the leadership is nervous is made clear by the e-mail sent to SNP business managers, warning them not to speak to the media about the Nato proposals before the conference vote. It is probable that the pragmatists will come out on top. Yet there will be a price to be paid. Those committed to real independence will doubtless fall into line, but reluctantly, and even resentfully.

A few months ago there were doubts about the unity of the “Better Together” or “No” campaign, made up of members of three parties and no party.

Now it is the “Yes Scotland” campaign that looks more divided. By seeking to make independence more palatable to the uncommitted, the SNP leadership risks losing the whole-hearted support of the true believers. They’re not for turning, but the Laddie is – and they don’t like it.

 

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