Eddie Barnes: Nato debate a prisoner of referendum

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Campaigners on both sides of the independence debate are forced by circumstance to keep their tinderbox dry, writes Eddie Barnes

After Nato declared last week that a new state would have to apply to join, and following noises-off from the United States about the price of membership, the SNP has been pressed for answers in the past week. The whole spectacle has shown up why it is increasingly pointless to expect that the politicians and campaigns fighting the independence referendum will provide clear answers.

On Trident, in his conference speech last month, First Minister Alex Salmond declared once again that “the only way we can finally remove these weapons of mass destruction is with a Yes vote for independence.” The SNP insists that the weapons will be removed after a Yes vote at the earliest opportunity.

The most likely scenario, however – as admirably explained by the pro-independence defence expert Stuart Crawford – is that Trident will remain after independence until it is obsolete and replaced by something else. He estimates this at around 2030.

Realpolitik is the reason why. In negotiations after a Yes vote, Scotland will need all the bargaining chips it has. The UK’s desire to maintain its membership of the nuclear club – reinforced in recent weeks by Labour’s decision to commit to Trident’s replacement – will be Scottish negotiators’ best card; they would have the UK’s nuclear capability in their hands.

To those who say the SNP would never compromise on the issue, it needn’t. After all, it won’t be just the SNP negotiating – Labour, Tory, Lib Dem and others will be around the table as well. “Want to keep Trident at Faslane? OK, write off our share of the national debt, or pay us £xbn for x number of years for the lease,” speculated Crawford on the Scottish position. His analysis meets the test of common sense.

And yet, this rational perspective will not see the light of day in the political campaign over the coming 18 months for one bad reason and one good one.

The bad reason is that the two sides do not want to nurture internal dissent – and external scorn – by owning up. The bitter reaction to the SNP’s Nato U-turn has given it a taster of the kind of outcry it would face if it softened on Trident. And if Labour politicians declared publicly that they would keep Trident on the Clyde after independence, Salmond would have them for breakfast.

The good reason is that any compromise now by the SNP on Trident could weaken Scotland’s negotiating position after a Yes vote – after all, the demand for Trident to go now could help Scotland secure maximum value for its compromise, when that inevitability takes place.

People want to know what will happen after independence. But this issue illustrates that, prior to the vote, there are some things that the politicians simply will not – or perhaps cannot – say.