After a passionate and tempestuous debate that put the SNP leadership’s grip on the party to the test, Nationalists have backed an independent Scotland becoming part of the Nato nuclear alliance.
At the party’s conference in Perth, a plan backed by leader Alex Salmond to reverse 31 years of opposition to the Atlantic defence organisation was passed by delegates, by just 29 votes. The decision came as a relief to both Mr Salmond and Westminster leader Angus Robertson who, during the heated two-and-a-half-hour debate, had been forced to look on as member after member tore into the plan, warning it would leave the SNP open to claims it had “sold its principles” and turned them into “hypocrites”.
With the result in the balance and amid boos from his opponents, Mr Robertson exhorted the party “do not kid yourself” as he argued the Nato membership reform was required to convince sceptics to back independence in the 2014 referendum.
Boosted by a tub-thumping speech from justice secretary Kenny MacAskill, the pro-Nato side repeatedly sought to reassure their opponents they would sign up to the alliance only once they had received a cast-iron commitment to get rid of Trident from Faslane.
As anti-Nato campaigners protested outside, the argument was eventually carried. Scottish Government ministers all supported the move: opponents claimed the “pay-roll vote” had been strong-armed into supporting Mr Salmond’s plans.
Those against the Nato move insisted last night they would respect the verdict of the conference.
However, the debate left the leadership rocked in a way not seen within the SNP since Mr Salmond returned to power as party leader in 2004.
As the final backing for the reform was read out by the party’s chairman, MSP Derek Mackay, the First Minister could be heard via the on-stage microphone saying: “Make sure they hear this”.
Mr Robertson was later overheard saying: “Who dares wins”.
The move means that, ahead of the 2014 referendum, the SNP will propose that Scotland remains a member of Nato if it becomes independent, on condition the alliance agrees the Trident weapons at Faslane are removed.
Mr Robertson’s motion proposed the nuclear warheads were taken away as “speedily” as possible. It also argued Scotland should take part only in wars specifically sanctioned by the UN.
Time and time again, however, opponents warned that membership of Nato – which enshrines a “first-strike” policy using nuclear weapons – would ruin the party’s commitment to get rid of Trident. They said it would be inevitable that a newly independent Scotland would be put under huge pressure to do its bit for the alliance by keeping them there.
Removing Trident from Scotland has long been an article of faith for the SNP, but defence analysts and senior military figures have warned there is nowhere else in the British Isles for the nuclear submarines to go.
Mr Robertson’s opening speech was receiving cordially by the 800-strong audience at the Perth Concert Hall. Fellow MP Angus MacNeil turned the debate into a leadership issue, telling delegates: “This policy is supported by Alex Salmond. Put your trust in him.”
But the plans were described as an “absurdity” by trade unionist Bill Ramsay, who claimed SNP members, “even possibly some ministers”, were being put under pressure to back the move.
To cheers from supporters, he added: “Let’s consider Nato membership when the last Trident boat sails down the Clyde and not before.”
Another member, Duncan Ross, said the SNP had regularly criticised Labour for ditching its principles and that Mr Robertson’s plans would “undermine our position as a party of principle and integrity”.
With the debate seemingly going the way of the opponents, Mr Robertson’s plan was stoutly defended, first by finance secretary John Swinney and then by an impassioned Mr MacAskill.
Referring to his decision to release the Lockerbie bomber, Mr MacAskill said: “Friends, I am no US poster boy. I am certainly no US lap dog.”
But he added: “People need reassurance they are going to be safe. Whether those fears are rational or irrational, we need to be able to satisfy them and allay their fears.”
To roars of approval, he said: “I have marched for CND and I have protested against Trident and I am tired marching. I want a seat for our government in the situations of power.”
Summing up, and with the vote still in doubt, Mr Robertson repeated that, without an agreement to get rid of Trident, “we will not be in Nato”.
To boos from delegates, he then said: “Don’t kid yourself…walking away from our neighbours and allies will not help us win in 2014”.
An amendment urging the SNP to keep its anti-Nato stance was beaten by 394 votes to 365. Mr Robertson’s motion was then backed by 426 votes to 332.