Swinney and Neil voice support for Nato U-turn before party showdown

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SOME of the Scottish Government’s most senior cabinet ministers have backed the party leadership’s controversial plan to scrap its opposition to Nato.

Finance secretary John Swinney described the proposed policy shift as an “excellent” move and said that Nato membership would put an independent Scotland in a “strong position”.

Health secretary, Alex Neil, issued a stark warning to SNP members that an independent Scotland must not “walk away from its friends” by leaving the defence pact that some activists see as contrary to the party’s anti-nuclear stance.

The ministers’ intervention will be seen as the latest attempt by the SNP leadership to bolster support for scrapping the party’s long-standing opposition to Nato in the run-up to the party’s annual conference in Perth next month.

However, the SNP’s newly published agenda for the conference showed that eight MSPs had signed a formal attempt to block the policy shift in a clear sign of the bitter row expected when the issue is debated on the second day of the conference.

SNP MSP Jamie Hepburn claimed that it was “possible” that as many as 20 MSPs would oppose a resolution from the defence spokesman, Angus Robertson, that states “an independent Scotland will maintain Nato membership subject to an agreement that Scotland will not host nuclear weapons”.

An amendment supported by Mr Hepburn that would replace Mr Robertson’s text with a statement based on existing SNP policy states 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 support for Nato membership from ministers comes after Alex Salmond, and his deputy Nicola Sturgeon, announced their support for a reversal of the SNP’s anti-Nato stance.

Mr Swinney said: “Northern Europe faces particular challenges which we must resolve together. All of our North Sea neighbours do this through Nato and we should be in this strong position too.”

Mr Neil added: “We should not be sending out an international message that the first thing an independent Scotland will do is walk away from our friends.”

However, SNP MSP John Wilson warned Nato membership could lead to an independent Scotland being dragged into overseas conflicts.