THE SNP leadership is facing growing unrest over its plans to ditch its opposition to Nato membership with MSPs, party branches and other senior nationalist figures lining up to challenge the controversial policy shift.
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Seven MSPs have been identified as supporters of a formal attempt to block a move by the SNP’s defence spokesman, Angus Robertson, to scrap the long-standing anti-Nato stance at the annual party conference this autumn.
There is also expected to be opposition to the policy retreat from a dozen groups within the SNP, including party branches in the constituencies of Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and energy minister Fergus Ewing.
The Scotsman has obtained a copy of a document sent to SNP rebels by nationalist MSP Jamie Hepburn setting out how to organise themselves against the party leadership on the issue in a clear sign of the bitter row expected at the conference in Perth.
Mr Hepburn’s circular sets out a formal attempt to vote down a resolution to the conference from Mr Robertson stating that an SNP government in an independent Scotland “will maintain Nato membership subject to an agreement that Scotland will not host nuclear weapons”.
An amendment from Mr Hepburn would replace Mr Robertson’s text with a statement based on existing SNP policy stating that as Nato “continues to be a nuclear weapons-based alliance, the conference resolves that the SNP position will continue to be that Scotland should not remain a member of Nato”.
The move means that the SNP leadership now faces an “unprecedented” opposition within its own ranks to the policy shift, a shift that has been backed strongly by First Minister Alex Salmond.
Other MSPs listed alongside Mr Hepburn in opposing Mr Salmond’s stance include figures seen as leadership loyalists such as Sandra White, Marco Biagi and Dave Thompson, who is a leading member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND).
Nationalist MSPs Jean Urquhart, John Finnie and Gordon MacDonald are also listed as being among those who have “committed thus far” with Mr Hepburn using the memo to talk about how support for the rebellion “may be larger” by the time of the SNP’s deadline for amendments to party conference resolutions on Friday.
The SNP’s Govan Kingston and Southside Central branches in the constituency of deputy leader Ms Sturgeon are among those listed as opposing the policy change, even though the deputy leader fully backs the move.
There is also opposition from the SNP’s Inverness city branch in Mr Ewing’s constituency of Inverness and Nairn, according to Mr Hepburn’s document that lists eight internal party groups opposing the policy shift alongside another four likely to follow suit this week.
Mr Thompson said more groups and individuals in the party would join the rebels before the conference in October.
He said: “I’m obviously pleased that more MSPs and organisations and individuals are rallying behind the move to retain the current policy. I’ve no doubt that others will have the chance to discuss the position and that some will come behind it.”
SNP MSP Ms Urquhart said: ”I didn’t think this was anything other than a issue that would get everybody’s attention and that’s what happened. I suspect that this is a story that will run and run. I’m maintaining party policy.”
Mr Hepburn’s amendment talks about how the SNP should maintain its anti-Nato stance going into the next Holyrood elections in 2016 and ask voters whether they would want an independent Scotland to remain in the alliance if the 2014 referendum delivers independence.
It says: “Conference recognises that on independence, Scotland will inherit its membership of Nato, and that it will be for the Scottish people to decide whether to retain such membership through the parliament and government they elect.
“As Nato continues to be a nuclear weapons-based alliance, Conference resolves that the SNP position will continue to be that Scotland should not remain a member of Nato, but instead cooperate as part of the Partnership for Peace programme.”
Opposition parties last night claimed that the mounting opposition within the SNP to ditching the anti-Nato stance represented the first real internal rebellion Mr Salmond has faced since he came to power more than five years ago.
Other groups opposing the leadership over the Nato issue include the party’s influential trade union group, the Federation of Student Nationalists and Young Scots for Independence.
An SNP spokesman said: “SNP members have the democratic opportunity to make their views on Nato membership clear at the annual conference.”