Lesley Riddoch: Loyalty test may be a wonky strategy

A submarine carrying nuclear missiles makes its way out to sea from a safe Scottish berth
A submarine carrying nuclear missiles makes its way out to sea from a safe Scottish berth
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THE SNP’s open debate on Nato membership could leave the big guns diving for cover at party conference, writes Lesley Riddoch

Why has the SNP leadership backed Nato membership and triggered a pre-referendum challenge to the authority of Alex Salmond? Despite all the complex reasons offered, it’s still a puzzle.

The party has opposed membership of the American-led, nuclear military alliance for more than 30 years, arguing instead that an independent Scotland should join Sweden, Austria, Finland and Ireland in Partnership for Peace which promotes bilateral cooperation between Nato and non-Nato members.

However, earlier this year, SNP defence spokesman Angus Robertson announced a policy shift, arguing a Scottish state would inherit UK Nato membership and should retain it as part of a new security strategy.

Immediately this caused dissent, the SNP leadership tried to silence it and a small group of MSPs and activists broke ranks and is now openly campaigning against the proposed policy change. With Mr Salmond himself backing the motion at October’s party conference, Nato membership has suddenly become a loyalty (and career) test. Is this what SNP strategists intended?

Some argue a good-going debate (which Mr Salmond nonetheless wins) will show the SNP isn’t packed with on-message automatons. Others suggest this is the SNP’s Clause 4 moment as the party ditches “pressure group posturing” and accepts the responsibility of government and the possibility of using Trident in post-independence bargaining with Rest of the UK. They argue Nato membership would help “normalise” independence (with the retention of sterling, Britishness and the Queen) and remove defence from the list of treaty-hiccups, policy inconsistencies and scary post-independence scenarios being compiled relentlessly by the Better Together campaign.

But another interesting reason for Nato membership has also been cited by Mr Robertson – keeping faith with Nordic Nato members (especially Norway) who don’t want a close independent neighbour to be a “weak link” outside the alliance

Evidently Norway, Denmark and Iceland already accept their more immediate neighbours think differently. Neither Finland nor Sweden is a Nato member – indeed neutrality is written into the Swedish constitution.

SNP supporters of Nato membership say Scotland is more strategically important to the North Atlantic alliance than these Baltic Sea-locked states whose history of unsuccessful conflict with their enormous Russian neighbour has perforce made them advocates of neutrality and masters of security through trade, diplomacy and talks.

Yet I’ve found no evidence that Norway is actively urging Scotland to stay “in the club”.

Conversations with leading members of the Norwegian Atlantic Committee and Norwegian Institute of International Affairs do indeed reveal that Norwegian strategists can’t see why a desire for nuclear-free status should lead Scots to reject Nato membership.

After all, Norway is a nuclear-free member which insist no ships carrying nuclear weapons enter its ports. On the other hand, those same commentators insist no “please stay in Nato” pressure has been brought to bear upon the SNP by Norwegians.

Much to the chagrin of nationalists, Norway has long identified strongly with the UK and London. That’s partly because their royal family fled to London during the German occupation of Norway in the 1940s; partly because this small, powerful northern country conducts foreign relations with other fully fledged players – not regions; and partly because it isn’t in the Norwegian nature to “tell” any neighbouring state what to do.

If Scotland finally votes for independence, Norwegian strategists will pay attention to the Scottish defence dimension. Meanwhile, they readily admit the Nordic view of Scottish independence has been influenced by the scathing views of English defence specialists who assure them it’ll never happen.

Meantime, the Norwegians have other Barents, Arctic and Baltic fish to fry – and there’s the rub.

The Norwegians and Scots may share some North Sea coastline but we do not share all geopolitical interests nor the same recent history of American involvement in domestic and foreign affairs.

The Norwegians have not endured decades of unwanted American-supplied weapons of mass destruction located on Scottish soil – which have become the most visible and potent symbols of colonial London diktat. They have not watched successive British prime ministers become the poodles of American presidents. They have not watched their country sleepwalk into a fatal and fateful war in Iraq, making them potential targets for fundamentalist Islam.

Indeed, that possibility was not even mentioned in the immediate, confusing aftermath of Utoëya – by Norwegian politicians at least.

That’s how different the influence of America has been in branch-economy Scotland and oil-fund- sovereign Norway.

American domination of Nato is not a big deal for Norwegians. One commentator even suggested the Norwegian policy of “hand-holding” Russia in the creation of High North visa-free zones and joint development has been made easier by the distant hint of American nuclear back-up.

That’s not to say Scots are wrongly neurotic about Nato or that Norwegians are rightly relaxed. It is to say that different stories, politics, histories and realities have brought each nation to different outlooks.

None of the Nordic nations has nuclear weapons. But even recent “nuclear break-ups” have prompted a range of “responsible” responses – not just one.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 created concern that four nuclear weapon successor states had been created when Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine inherited 6,000 strategic and battlefield nuclear weapons. The Lisbon Protocol in 1992, backed by the UK, USA and Russia, required these new states to dismantle or hand back their nuclear weapons to “Mother” Russia. Despite political disputes, that happened in 1996.

Upon independence, Kazakhstan drafted the Central Asian Nuclear Weapons Free Zone Treaty whereas Ukraine – suddenly the world’s third largest nuclear weapons power – declared administrative control over its 1,900 strategic warheads (including cruise missiles). It took a special agreement involving presidents Clinton and Yeltsin and American cash to cover the dismantling costs before Ukrainian “denuclearisation” went ahead.

In short, there have been different approaches to the “problem” of nuclear weapons in post-independence scenarios as well as different approaches among Nordic nations about how best to achieve security without nuclear weapons. There’s no prescription, no “one-size-fits-all” and no apparent Nordic pressure on the SNP to join Nato. There is just a tough post-independence decision – should that arise.

Opinion polls suggest the Scottish public doesn’t much care about Nato membership either way – but SNP activists and Chatham House strategists evidently do. Is a desire for credibility with London-based policy wonks set to win the day?