IN THE SNP’s debate over Nato, two cases are being made. One is that an independent Scotland could have its biggest impact by joining Nato and working with some of the more progressive countries in that alliance towards removing nuclear weapons from European soil.
The other argues that Scotland should remain outside Nato, remove nuclear weapons immediately and then work constructively with counties inside and outside Nato on a host of international issues to set a positive example to the world.
It is to be celebrated that Scotland can have this debate. Both of these visions of a Scottish international role are streets ahead of Britain’s stances of “the only way you’ll get our nukes from us is to prize them from our cold, dead hands” and “we agree with whatever the United States just said”.
However, we need to be realistic. Scotland is small and Nato’s interest in us is heavily tied up with our role as landlord to weapons of mass destruction.
All the experiences of bigger Nato countries in Europe are that you can certainly vote to remove nukes but voting doesn’t amount to much.
Not a single country has managed it and three – including mighty Germany – have passed votes in their parliament only to have them ignored.
But even if Scotland did join Nato and did manage to get rid of Trident from Scottish soil, what then? Is the best that we can hope for the fixed grin of the Nato group photo, us thinking we’re fighting the good fight, the rest of the world not noticing us in the shadows of US commercial interests?
Because on this I do agree with the pro-Nato side: Nato is not a Cold War relic. As a defensive force it is obsolete, but as a means of protecting commercial interests it has a very specific agenda.
The only conflict in the rough vicinity of Scotland which has been raised as a potential problem to which Nato might be the solution is a confrontation between the US and Russia over drilling rights for Arctic oil. What this means is that Scotland would be trapped in a treaty which requires us to stand side-by-side with Exxon Mobile in a shooting war with Gazprom.
We need to be clear: tiny Scotland would spend a lot more time biting its tongue than speaking words of wisdom to the US. We would have picked one side in a geopolitical war for commercial access to global natural resources and strategic position, and once that side is picked there is no nuance.
Perhaps the day the first shot is fired over Arctic snow by soldiers who flew there from Scottish airbases, Russia and China will instigate a boycott of Scotch whisky.
It will do no good then to say “but we tried”, because Scotland will have become a partisan nation which is engaged in wars of aggression. Scottish soldiers would be bombing Iran or blockading the Arctic many moons before Scottish diplomats negotiate even one bomb out of existence.
And it will leave us discredited where it really matters. Wilbert van der Zeijden is a senior figure in the international conflict resolution community. He warns that because of Nato membership the rest of the global community is “less inclined to take countries like the Netherlands seriously in the Conference on Disarmament, the NPT and other non-proliferation and disarmament forums.
“It would be entirely unnecessary and quite a bad move if Scotland manoeuvred itself in a similar position.”
I once knew someone who would get to every meeting early to secure a chair as close as possible to whomever he believed to be the most important person in the room. He thought we were impressed; we thought he was a bit sad.
The thing about credibility and integrity is that you are judged by your actions and not your explanations.
A Scotland in Nato will gain lip service from the US generals – the very ones who refer to Nato as Snow White and the Twenty Seven Dwarves. Everyone else on the world stage would write Scotland off as an adjunct to the US. In effect, having just gained a credible voice in international negotiations on nuclear non-proliferation, Scotland would choose to give it up again. Which would be a crying shame because if Scotland removed Trident from its soil its international credibility would be sky high.
Too many political insiders believe “grubby compromise” to be a synonym for “serious politics”. If Scotland became independent it would have plenty of time to seek out its own grubby compromises. It doesn’t need to be born in one.
Scotland could become the nation leading the world in a fresh effort to get rid of nuclear weapons. The international repercussions of Scotland effectively disarming one of the globe’s eight nuclear powers would be enormous.
It is not overblown to suggest that many in the international community would look to us for leadership, as evidence that a nuclear-free world is possible. To lose that voice for the sake of American corporate profits would be to squander a truly valuable prize.
• Robin McAlpine is director of the Jimmy Reid Foundation