Euan McColm: Lone Nationalist knows the SNP can’t fire blanks on armed forces

WHEN two Tornado jets plunged into the Moray Firth last week, the SNP’s defence spokesman Angus Robertson paid eloquent tribute to the three airmen who lost their lives.

That a politician should find the right words at such a moment is not in itself remarkable.

But reading Robertson’s comments I was reminded that – in the SNP – he is unique. No other senior Nationalist understands the armed forces like Robertson.

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It’s not simply that he’s well-briefed, though he seems to be. What makes Robertson so very unusual for an SNP politician is that he feels at home among service folk. They’re his kind of people.

As MP for Moray – Scotland’s most forces-dependent constituency – Robertson might be expected to tailor his services appropriately. But the 42-year-old’s commitment appears sincere. I believe him when he says he understands how loss affects communities where every time a loved one departs the fear that they may not return snaps back to life.

Robertson is the only elected SNP member to have visited troops in war zones, having made trips to both Kuwait and Afghanistan. (A Nationalist source was keen to point out to me that Alex Salmond has never been invited to meet servicemen and women. It’s hard to imagine a point since 2007, however, when the Ministry of Defence would have been able to reject a request from the First Minister’s office.) He’s also a graduate of the House of Commons Armed Forces scheme, where MPs train alongside the new recruits to the Army, Navy and RAF. And beware anyone – Nationalist or unionist – with a critical word for the men and women who serve us. Robertson is their fiercest defender.

One of the ways in which die-hard SNP members kid themselves that their party is still in the slightest bit radical is through their approach to defence. The Nationalists’ broad “nukes out, troops home” mantra may, from time to time, chime with a wider public mood. But it’s a stance adopted in the days when the notion that an SNP politician might ever have to seriously consider the defence of an independent Scotland was laughable.

Times change. And so does nationalism. Now it incorporates the Queen, the Bank of England, and even being British.

But when it comes to defence, the Nationalists are stuck in the past.

The public proclamations are just as fiery as ever, but senior SNP politicians have been bumping up against the real world for quite some time now, and they privately know slogan politics isn’t enough this time.

The pledge to remove the Trident nuclear deterrent from the Clyde remains a great favourite of SNP MSPs. It’s a policy which – whenever Salmond restates it in the Holyrood debating chamber – has his troops cheering and thumping their desks. Some of them actually still believe it’s going to happen.

But behind the scenes, the SNP leadership knows the removal of nuclear submarines from Faslane would be a logistical nightmare, particularly if, as some in the party believe, the Nationalists are ready to ditch opposition to membership of Nato at their autumn conference. Some Nationalists have said that an independent Scotland could be both nuclear-weapon free and a member of Nato, citing examples of other non-nuke member countries. But those countries didn’t have billions of pounds of Nato weaponry already installed in a specific location for strategic reasons.

Can an independent Scotland really say to Nato that we’d like membership, thanks, but could you move those weapons somewhere less suitable to defend the free world?

It’s not just on Trident and Nato that the SNP looks unsure. There’s also the matter of what exactly the fully equipped, expertly trained men and women of a promised independent Scottish forces would actually do. If Scotland is out of Nato, they’re going to have to organise a lot of parades to pass the time.

There couldn’t be a better time for the SNP to revisit defence policy. The leadership should do so with confidence. The Bravehearts can be ignored: they’d vote yes in the referendum even if Salmond killed a cat on Newsnight Scotland. But the not-quite-theres of middle Scotland are yet to hear a satisfactory vision for defence from the Nationalists.

Among elected SNP members, there are widely differing views on the subject. For some – and I include in this number a handful of MSPs – an independent Scottish Armed Forces would represent an end to wearing the “butcher’s apron” of the union flag. But others have given more serious thought to this, and question how a small island, vulnerable to attack, can realistically operate with two separate armed forces.

It’s one thing to refuse to join in something like war in Iraq, but quite another when talking about the defence of these islands.

Some would tell you that a large section of the SNP have never really engaged on the subject of defence. It’s true that the party does seem to operate at the extremes of vehemently opposing action while sentimentally defending the Scots regiments which are engaged in conflict.

Back in 2001, in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the party cancelled a conference debate on Nato. Privately, it was because spin doctors feared that opening the floor would elicit comments about American and British forces that would be impossible to defend.

I could understand the reasoning then, but this failure to confront and debate on the subject has continued down the years. As a consequence, there are too many blank spaces in SNP defence policy, too many questions unanswered.

Serious Nationalist politicians have to nail down exactly how Scottish armed forces would fit in the world. They need to deal with the Nato and Trident issues satisfactorily.

Angus Robertson is a significant figure in the SNP. He has a key role in the referendum campaign and is, by some distance, his party’s most capable Westminster debater. But he could do no greater service to his party than leading a new debate on the subject of defence.

Angus Robertson spoke with generosity and compassion this week because the people of the armed forces matter to him.

He can do this within the SNP because he knows that what the party does matters to everyone.