Jim Sillars: Scotland is bound to stay in the club

AN independent Scotland would have to accept the constraints of geopolitical reality, which includes accepting membership of Nato, writes Jim 
Sillars

For more than three hundred years Scots have had no reason to think of issues in terms of Scottish, as distinct from UK, state interests. Our provincial interests within the UK have dominated Scottish thinking. The coming referendum requires us to shed that constricting band around the national brain, especially so for that part of it represented by the membership of the SNP.

If they want a Scottish state, they must start to think in terms of Scottish state interests. To paraphrase Winnie Ewing, if we want to stop the world and get on, we require a different mentality from the years of opposition, a very different perspective and understanding of that world, particularly in foreign and defence policy. Grandstanding is out, a new reality with new responsibilities takes its place.

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“No man can set the bounds of a nation,” a quotation from an Irish nationalist, when uttered at an SNP conference, is guaranteed to win ecstatic applause.

It’s guff. Every state is subject to the geopolitical realities of spheres of influence. There are boundaries beyond which unilateral policies are not wise, and that applies with particular emphasis to small countries. That, in essence, is the lesson that Angus Robertson wants the SNP membership and conference delegates to absorb with what the media are calling, correctly, a U-turn on Nato.

Finland and Sweden, during the cold war, had the Russian Bear next door, a military superpower. Joining the EU would have been regarded as an unfriendly act by the USSR. They had to wait until the Soviet Union collapsed.

Even now, with a truculent Russia still there, they are not in Nato, although arguably their need for allies is far greater than, say, the Netherlands. In Lee Kuan Yew’s book From Third World to First, chapter after chapter explains the constraints on foreign policy of the small Singapore state because of the presence and interests of its giant neighbours Indonesia and Malaysia, with China always ominous in the background. Georgia wants membership of Nato to get Chapter 5 protection so that Nato will fight Russia if it invades Georgia.

It won’t get it. Whatever lip service is paid to Georgia’s pleas, it is not in the state interests of the USA, Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary to tangle with the Kremlin on what it regards as its “near abroad” sphere of influence.

In a pamphlet published in 2009, I explicitly argued for continued membership of Nato. Scotland does not lie outside spheres of influence. Whilst the SNP, if successful in the referendum, will negotiate the terms of its relationship with the rest of the UK, there will be others with an acute interest in the matter.

The United States places higher priority now on the Asia-Pacific region than on Europe, but retains a strong national interest in the maintenance of the geographic integrity of Nato, as do Germany, France and the other members.

Scotland geographically is crucial to Nato’s integrity and capability in the European sphere. Our land is Nato’s biggest unsinkable aircraft carrier, from which the alliance can prevent an attempted incursion by a hostile naval force, via the North Sea, into the Atlantic sea lanes.

It is no small matter to render neutral an aircraft carrier such as we are (in effect “sinking” it) leaving a deadly gap between the North Sea and the Atlantic. It is naïve to believe that any serious attempt to do so, by giving Nato notice to quit, would not invite hostility to independence.

What could Nato members do if the present devolved SNP government says it will give their Alliance notice to quit on independence? Snooker our membership of the EU that’s what.

Whatever the SNP may claim by way of legal opinion, we shall need the unanimous support of all its members if we are actually to remain in, and that is unlikely to be forthcoming if we are prepared to sink their Nato members’ aircraft carrier and render vulnerable the sea supply line from America to Europe at a time of crisis. All it will take in the middle of the referendum campaign is for one of the Nato states in the EU to say we have no automatic entry entitlement, and cast doubt on our membership, for the SNP campaign to collapse.

We would soon learn to our cost that others can set the bounds of this nation if we endanger a policy central to their defence.

There is anticipation in the media that there will be a big debate on Nato at the annual conference (a big debate on anything there will be a change from recent years) and that the leadership will have difficulty in getting the new policy endorsed by the delegates.

I am not sure about that. When I discussed my pamphlet at a well-attended party meeting in Edinburgh, there was opposition to retention of Nato membership, but the majority came into the mature world of state interests and realpolitik. Once the leadership explains that it is not possible to put Nato into a special exclusion box because of the need to carry other states with us, or to at least render them neutral as to the outcome of the referendum, the media may be in for a nasty surprise – overwhelming support for Robertson’s new policy.

If membership of Nato, for the reasons adduced above, is one price of gaining independence then I am fo it. I have never felt shame in a change of mind.

I went from staunch Unionist “the hammer of the Nats” to independence because I saw that as being in Scotland’s interests.

Although the architect of the “Independence in Europe” policy, I am less than enamoured with the EU post-Lisbon treaty and the profoundly undemocratic and foolish handling of the euro crisis. When facts and circumstances change, so should minds.

There remains, of course, the problem of Trident. Its existence seems to be supremely important to the foreign policy establishment in Westminster. Perhaps anxiety about retention of the UN security council seat is a factor. Will it be more difficult to hold that seat if not one of the big five nuclear powers?

Without that seat a Westminster foreign secretary would be as influential in the world as the one from Belgium. Given the apparent importance of Trident to London, it is interesting to note the wording of Robertson’s policy.

There are no repetitions of past stock conference rants to whip up delegate fervour, no grandiose threat of early eviction of Trident. But of “negotiating the speediest safe transition of the nuclear fleet from Faslane.”

“Speediest safe transition.” Note those words, implicit in them is the recognition that it will take some 5-8 years, for London to build a suitable relocation port, and that during those years Trident will remain at Faslane.

Another difficult, but unavoidable reality to be absorbed by the party.