Analysis: Debate pushed out into the open by fierce opposition
THE SNP is not known for having high-profile policy debates. Debates mean splits, splits mean disunity and disunity equals lost votes.
What is interesting about the present debate over Nato membership post-independence is that the party’s leadership is making a virtue out of having a public discussion.
Originally, Angus Robertson – the driving force behind this change – planned to manage the U-turn via a June meeting of the SNP’s National Council, which would have benefited from limited attendance and no media presence.
Instead, the leadership has opted to have the debate at annual conference, amid thousands of delegates and the glare of television cameras.
This indicates that Robertson et al are supremely confident of carrying the day and persuading conference that an independent Scotland within Nato is the best outcome. Indeed, they are making a virtue out of having what they predict will be an “excellent” debate, while constantly restating that the SNP’s commitment to removing Trident remains “cast-iron”.
It seems likely that Robertson misjudged the degree of internal opposition and thus decided to give the policy shift a more public profile.
That said, to have at least seven SNP MSPs prepared to oppose the leadership’s position at conference constitutes a significant rebellion, certainly the biggest since Alex Salmond returned as leader of the party in 2004.
What makes the situation even more interesting is that those tabling counter motions cannot be classified as “the usual suspects” or fringe figures not to be taken seriously.
Rather they encompass a broad cross-section of the SNP, from MSPs and councillors to affiliated organisations and branches – including some from ministerial constituencies like Govan.
Robertson, on the other hand, has the backing of the First Minister and the vast majority of the Holyrood group and thus, one imagines, the wider party.
Having been accused of control freakery in the past, perhaps the whole debate is seen as a useful corrective, a means by which Salmond can emphasise that the SNP, unlike “New” Labour, remains a healthy and democratic organisation.
But the split – and it certainly constitutes a split – is not just about Nato membership; it is a proxy for wider tensions within the party, between those who believe the leadership has become too conservative in its vision of independence and those, like Robertson, who argue that Nato membership is a crucial test of an independent Scotland’s credibility on the international stage.
Although there is a certain logic to the rebels’ stance, the appetite within the party to die in a ditch over this issue – as with a recent change in position over the monarchy – is likely to be limited. Even members who feel strongly about not being part of Nato are unlikely to rank it above independence, however much in conflict the two goals might be.
The SNP’s October gathering will, however, be interesting. It will either be a PR disaster ahead of the 2014 referendum or – more likely – a well-managed debate which projects the SNP as a party mature enough to have an open discussion about an important policy shift.
• David Torrance is a biographer of Alex Salmond.
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Saturday 25 May 2013
Temperature: 5 C to 17 C
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Temperature: 8 C to 17 C
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