Tom Peterkin: One-man rescue operation keeps leadership’s Nato plans on track
There appeared to be an air of calm around Alex Salmond as his right hand held his voting card aloft, signalling his support for an independent Scotland joining Nato.
But his stomach could have been forgiven if it did a couple of somersaults as the stewards below the stage frantically counted the votes.
Two hours of fierce debate were coming to a climax and the tension enveloping the hall was intense. An earlier show of cards had proved too close to call and there had to be an official count. The maelstrom of excitement and nervousness pervading Perth Concert Hall was akin to a cup-final penalty shoot-out.
A few moments earlier, Angus Robertson was booed as he tried to persuade members to disregard 30 years of hostility towards Nato and embrace the nuclear alliance.
“It’s a dodgy dossier,” shouted one angry delegate as Robertson produced a poll showing that 75 per cent of people thought Scotland should remain in Nato.
His argument cut little ice with delegates who had opposed the military pact for their entire political life.
As Sandra White MSP put it: “Where are these 75 per cent? Nobody that I have met on the street has ever raised the issue of Nato with me.”
Cheers rang out as White put the boot in during a debate that was a rarity for a modern party conference in that both sides constructed decent arguments and spoke with genuine passion and true conviction. Standing shoulder to shoulder with Robertson were John Swinney, Angus Brendan MacNeil and Keith Brown, a former Royal Marine who called for the policy change despite joining CND two years after leaving the armed forces.
But the most telling contribution came from Kenny MacAskill, whose speech was full of barnstorming pragmatism. “I’m no US poster boy,” was the opening line from the man vilified on the other side of the Atlantic for freeing the Lockerbie bomber. “And certainly no US lapdog,” he added as uproarious laughter gripped the hall.
Delegates were in no mood to question whether an oblique reference to a convicted terrorist was in good taste. He knew his audience and his joke hit the mark. On a day when plenty were keen to wear their CND badges on their sleeves, MacAskill said Nato membership would not undermine his party’s anti-nuclear stance. But he did not want his opposition to Trident to be “simply handed out in leaflets to opposition”.
Warming to his theme, he said: “We have moved on from being a party of protest to a party of power.”
We will never know for sure how many activists MacAskill won over, but Salmond and Robertson, in particular, owe him a large dram. In the end, Robertson’s resolution squeezed home by just 29 votes.
Without MacAskill’s contribution, it is doubtful whether Robertson would have been able to do his SAS impression and return to conference HQ declaring “Who Dares Wins”, which is precisely what he did last night.
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