Tom Miers: SNP Nato turnaround is morally defenceless

First Minister Alex Salmond. Picture: Jane Barlow
First Minister Alex Salmond. Picture: Jane Barlow
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ALEX Salmond’s proposal to remain part of Nato is a cynical attempt to boost support for independence at all costs, writes Tom Miers

One of the strongest arguments against the Union is that it is no longer necessary. In 1707, as in most of the two-and-a-half subsequent centuries, Scotland existed in a dangerous world. Scotland was not in a position to exploit the new global trading opportunities on its own because it required military muscle to elbow its way into the new world. Scotland was not even secure at home. Invasion, rebellion and civil conflict were constant threats.

In subsequent decades the piratical nature of global commerce moderated, but international security became even more precarious. One shudders to think how an independent Scotland would have fared caught between Napoleon and a desperate British Empire.

Now all that has changed. Global trading is governed by the rule of law. The threat of industrialised world war is in abeyance. The north Atlantic is enjoying a long period of blessed peace. An independent Scotland would face no serious threats, and so would require no military allies. It would barely require armed forces at all.

In foreign affairs, independence for Scotland involves a loss of sovereignty. Scotland would have no influence in the councils of the world, or even much in Europe. Like Ireland, it would rely on the fluke of history in providing an era of calm and a bevy of benign neighbours. It could not affect the flow of history, but it would not need to.

The situation with the United Kingdom is quite different. The UK still has a powerful influence in promoting liberalism and the rule of law in world affairs. Withdrawal into isolationism would make the world less safe, less rich and less free. The UK is obliged to play a role that involves heavy military spending as part of the Atlantic alliance. The upside is that the world is attuned to Britain’s interests and philosophy.

I believe that for Scotland to relinquish its UK and therefore global influence would be a tragic mistake. But there is a balancing advantage to be grasped. While it might lose its voice in world affairs, its involvement in them would no longer be needed. Selfish isolationism makes sense. Why pay the piper when you can’t call the tune?

Which brings me to the issue of whether an independent Scotland should be part of Nato. For its smaller members, Nato is nothing but a burden. They know the Soviets are no longer a threat, but they are tied into the game of integrated command, joint bases, pressure to make a contribution and to buy American.

Denmark sent its jets to Libya. They performed well but were barely noticed by their bigger allies. Denmark had no say on the decision to go to war, its conduct, or its outcomes. Others refused to get involved and had to face American disdain and accusations of cowardliness.

By contrast, Ireland, Sweden and Switzerland are lauded for their neutrality, embraced as friends for all. American presidents sip Guinness on their first trips abroad. American companies set up European HQs in Dublin. Ireland’s security is guaranteed by the watchfulness of Britain and the US, but nothing is expected in return.

Scotland’s share of UK defence spending is £3.5 billion. The great bulk of this could be liberated on independence for new infrastructure, tax cuts or financing the growing burden of free care for the elderly and free university tuition.

So why is Alex Salmond manoeuvring to ditch the SNP’s long-standing and rational commitment to leave NATO?

The issue of nuclear weapons is a sideshow. Membership of Nato would not prevent Scotland from asking British nuclear submarines to leave. There are no fixed American installations to worry about.

Instead, the nationalist leader seeks to solve two problems. First is the tactical one of the job implications of defence cuts. His opponents point out that, in a neutralist Scotland, soldiers and shipbuilders would both face the dole. So the SNP comes up with entirely specious plans for a Scottish defence establishment that looks remarkably similar to the Scottish contribution to the UK’s current order of battle.

But any economist will tell you that far more jobs would be created if the financial resources committed to defence were deployed elsewhere. But today’s defence jobs, expensive though they are, belong to voters who must be placated.

Second, Salmond knows that he must win over agnostic unionists if he is to win his independence referendum. Hence his well-known strategy of pretending that not much will change in an independent Scotland in terms of identity. We will keep the Queen, the pound, joint embassies, the “social union”. And now Nato. It makes it all seem less anti-British, less of an upheaval.

There is a problem with this, and it is part of a developing pattern. The SNP is subsuming all other considerations in its obsession with independence. In almost every field of policy the real interests of Scottish people are subordinated to the nationalist power-grab. Domestic policy is shaped in simple reaction to anything that happens “down south” to exploit the perceived unpopularity of Westminster “right wingers”, such as Tony Blair or David Cameron. Tuition fees, pension and welfare reform, education, healthcare. It matters not if the idea is good – if it’s English, reject it.

But at the higher, more nebulous plane of nationality, the substance of independence is diluted, again with little thought for the implications for ordinary people. Treating the armed forces as a job-creating agency and NATO membership as a tokenistic piece of symbolism is par for the course.

The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament says that SNP plans to stay in NATO “look cynical and lacking in moral courage”. For once they are right.