THE SNP leadership is facing a challenge from within the party over its controversial plans to ditch its opposition to Nato membership.
Rebel Nationalists are plotting to block a move by the SNP’s defence spokesman, Angus Robertson, to scrap the long-standing anti-Nato stance at the annual party conference this autumn.
The Scotsman has learned that MSP Dave Thompson and the SNP trade union group have begun work on how to stop the policy shift, which has angered some grass-roots activists, who see it as contrary to the party’s anti-nuclear stance.
Mr Robertson is set to table a resolution to conference stating that an SNP government in an independent Scotland “will maintain Nato membership subject to an agreement that Scotland will not host nuclear weapons”.
But Mr Thompson, together with the SNP’s union and CND groups, is planning to lodge an amendment calling for an independent Scotland’s relations with Nato to be decided by the Scottish people.
John Duffy head of the 500-member SNP trade union group, confirmed he was working with members of the SNP Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and other party figures in the run-up to conference on how to defeat the move by the leadership.
Another SNP MSP, Jamie Hepburn, has warned the leadership he “may well consider” trying to block the move in a sign of the fierce opposition the proposed policy change has provoked in the party’s parliamentary ranks.
The news means the leadership will face a bitter battle at the party’s conference in Perth as it tries to force through the change to a policy that has existed for more than four decades.
Mr Thompson, who is a leading CND member, said that the SNP should maintain its anti-Nato stance going into the next Holyrood elections in 2016 and ask voters whether they would want an independent Scotland to remain in the alliance if the 2014 referendum delivers independence.
He said: “We accept that an independent Scotland would inherit Nato membership, but it should be up to the Scottish people after a referendum whether we remain as members.
“I’d argue that the SNP position going into the next election in 2016 if we win independence should be that we will not be members of Nato.
“A number of people are interested in backing such an amendment and my name will be attached it. I hope that a number of individuals and SNP branches will back it, as well as other elected members.
“It would delete that part of the motion in Angus Robertson’s name that talks about Nato and substitute the words with something that effectively says it should be up to the Scottish people whether we are in Nato. It will also say that the SNP should have a position at the 2016 election of not being in Nato.”
The SNP has a strict policy of opposition to nuclear weapons. Although only a minority of Nato members have nuclear weapons – including Britain and the United States – the military co-operation at the heart of the organisation means it is viewed as a nuclear alliance.
Mr Duffy warned that an independent Scotland’s membership of Nato could mean the anti-nuclear stance would be watered down and the defence pact could block the SNP’s flagship plans to scrap the Trident submarine fleet at Faslane.
He said: “Our group’s concern first and foremost is about removing Trident. Nato is a nuclear umbrella, and if we look at non-nuclear states in the alliance, they can end up having nuclear weapons on their soil.
“The key point we’ll be making is that if we are to remain in Nato, then it would make it harder to get rid of Trident.”
Mr Duffy, who is due to attend the conference, said the SNP trade union group had decided at its annual meeting at the weekend to oppose the change ahead of the deadline for amendments on 10 August.
Mr Duffy, a member of the Fire Brigades Union, said: “We are talking to other groups and individuals. We will be in a position to support an amendment to the resolution that will say we want to keep the party’s opposition to Nato membership.”
The leadership’s bid to change the policy comes after an attempt to abandon SNP opposition to participation in Nato was shelved ahead of last month’s policymaking council because of internal opposition.
Conservative MSP Murdo Fraser said: “It’s clear that the SNP leadership is desperately trying to change a policy they know is unpopular with the wider public and which will encourage people to vote against independence.
“However, there are those among the hardline grass roots who would view a commitment to Nato as a betrayal of everything they have been fighting for. Whichever way this turns out, the SNP’s pro-independence campaign will be the loser.”
Labour MSP John Park, a former union official at the Rosyth dockyard, claimed the SNP trade unionists’ stance showed they were “out of touch”.
He said: “Trade unions organise among defence workers, including those on the Clyde, and the SNP trade union group does not appear to take this on board at all.”
An SNP spokesman said: “I am looking forward to an excellent debate within the SNP on defence policy, which will be decided at conference in October.”