It’s a song I’ve been performing for 25 years now, and I doubt I’ll ever stop. Shipbuilding – recorded by Robert Wyatt, with lyrics by Elvis Costello and music by Clive Langer – was a minor hit in the British charts, reaching number 35 on 28 May, 1983.
But as a response to the Falklands War, concluded the year before, it’s fair to say that Shipbuilding has become a classic of political songwriting. Referencing the Cammell-Laird shipyards of his youth in the Wirral, Costello focused on the moral dilemmas of the skilled working-class and the benefit they derived from the industrial war-machine.
Like many independence-supporting Scots of a left persuasion, I have been extremely disquieted by the recent press speculation about a possible reversal of the SNP’s stance on Nato – from non-involvement, to possible membership after independence. And I can’t get the urgency of Costello’s song out of my head and heart.
The key questions in my mind are these: Is the SNP’s advocacy of membership of Nato rooted in a desire to participate in a wave of reform of this Cold-War-era, nuclear-defined military command?
Or is it a way to retain Scotland’s military-industrial complex – its Rosyths and Clyde shipyards, its bases with ancillary services and industries – under cover of an ostensibly “credible” commitment to European collective security? To be blunt about it: does the SNP need Nato, because Nato will keep us shipbuilding?
Before we even explore these options, I am presuming a “red line” in Scottish independence politics that cannot be crossed – and that is the decommissioning, and then physical removal of Trident missiles from Scottish soil, under the shortest possible timeline, upon the achievement of full independence.
Too many Scots – many of them the disillusioned Labour voters that enabled the SNP’s two game-changing electoral victories – have invested their moral hopes in such an outcome, for it to be mitigated or fudged in any way. The removal of Trident cannot be a “Guantanamo closure” that never really closes; nor a version of the shabby, pecuniary leasing arrangement whereby Ukraine derives a rent from hosting Russia’s missiles.
The Scotland-in-Nato question brings it all to a head. The chief objection from the Scottish Left is that Nato still defines itself as a nuclear alliance in the last instance, with the US as its ultimate guarantor, and with “first-use” of weapons still a defining protocol.
We might be able to enter as a “non-nuclear” member – but by doing so, we still legitimate a nuclear umbrella. Even five out of the 25 officially “non-nuclear” states in Nato – Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, Italy and Turkey – host 200 forward-deployed US “tactical” nuclear weapons, under a “nuclear task sharing” arrangement.
In terms of the general spirit of non-proliferation, this enduringly nuclear Nato – which include the expansion of a new joint missile defence system, protecting “populations and territories against a ballistic missile attack” as a “core element” of collective defence – is still geopolitically dangerous. In particular, facing this extensive nuclearisation of Europe, Russia is given no incentive to reduce its vast stockpile of missiles.
Yes, there is a “battle of narratives” in Nato presently, as Scottish-based Nato Watch’s Ian Davis puts it – Germany would like to remove US missiles from its soil, with support from Scandinavian nations. In Davis’s view “it would be helpful to have a progressive Scottish voice within Nato, arguing on the side of the angels”.
Yet as he also admits, “if Nato cannot agree to withdraw these anachronistic weapons after three Strategic Concept reviews, it says a lot about the decision-making process (and overall legitimacy) of the alliance”. And, relatedly, about the hubris of a Scotland thinking it can influence such a frozen, big-power-dominated alliance from the inside.
The “credible” position for an independent Scotland might well be to get involved in this melee, for all manner of realpolitik reasons, for example, smoothing the way to EU membership. However, if we want an “ethical foreign policy” – to recall a recent aspiration – we should stand outwith the Nato nuclear umbrella, on the basis of objecting to its current stance as blocking non-proliferation.
In terms of Scotland’s global impact as a newly independent country, don’t we stand to gain hugely, in terms of national branding and progressive soft power – and in a world of asymmetric threats, even in terms of domestic security – if we comprehensively reject our association with the ultimate instruments of hard power?
A sovereign Scotland should be confident enough to allow our post-independence security arrangements and alliances to evolve over time, shaped by debate within a new and invigorated Scottish polity, rather than seek an ostentatiously and presumptively “credible” posture that implicates us in a nuclear future many Scots are vowed to oppose.
And this brings me to the “shipbuilding” question. Malcolm Chalmers’ very useful research paper , reported recently in our sister paper Scotland on Sunday on the future of defence in an independent Scotland sets out the hard budgetary realities. Derived from the spending of comparable small Nato states, like Norway and Denmark, Chalmers estimates a Scottish defence budget of between £1.7 and £2.1 billion – though Lithuania’s is £0.9bn, and non-Nato Ireland is £0.6bn.
Barring the effective protection of resources in sea territories, and contributions to co-ordinated anti-terror measures and humanitarian missions, what requires Scotland to spend unnecessary billions of precious post-independence revenue on its military?
Going by SNP advisor Jennifer Dempsie’s recent column in this paper, the main argument would seem to be sustaining our military-industrial complex. She suggests a Scottish defence budget of £2.5bn, an increase on current UK spending here, which would help the Scottish Government to “stand up for Govan”. She explicitly cites BAE Systems, currently toiling to build an aircraftless aircraft carrier for the Royal Navy, as worthy of attention when the job is finished in 2015. “In an independent Scotland”, she wrote, “our yards will secure orders on the basis of their skills and record – Scottish shipyards already build ships for countries outside the UK.”
Hold on a minute. Am I expected to express economic patriotism for BAE Systems as a “Scottish shipyard”? The BAE that faced bribery allegations and paid $400 million to the US Department of Justice and pled guilty to one charge of conspiring to make false statements to the US government relating to its operations and business dealings in the Czech Republic, Hungary and Saudi Arabia Dempsie vaunts Scotland’s “unique facilities and skills” for collaborative defence procurement.
Might that include, perhaps, the collective procurement demanded by Scotland’s active Nato membership? This sounds less like an engaged agenda for “shaping the narrative” of the Alliance – and more about ensuring business for our military sector.
There seems to be an insufficiency of imagination and will in the SNP that swords can be turned into ploughshares – or to use the technical term, “arms conversion and diversification”. Are we unable to imagine diverting, say, a billion of the SNP’s projected defence budget towards an investment in civil R&D – and in particular, the range of sustainable technologies and infrastructures that we claim as our primary economic and productive future? Ian Davis, and the Jimmy Reid Foundation, both suggest that we should set up a commission to accurately determine Scottish “national needs” in military provision.
There is a lingering militarism in Scottish national identity, from our cheesier national anthems to our ambivalence towards the “bonnie fechters” of our regiments. Sometimes, I think it quietly conditions the responses of those who, in the main, have the very best interests of Scotland at heart. Let’s also be electorally informed here. For an SNP worried about their low support among women – who also poll much higher in their opposition to nukes and military interventions than men – can they afford to signal a shift toward a Nato still bristling with militial menace?
We need a substantive public debate about Scottish independence and Nato. Properly and intelligently conducted, it will show us off to the watching world at our best. To slightly rewrite one of Costello’s lines: we are skilled in more, much more, than warship-building. • Pat Kane runs the Scottish ideas-blog thoughtland.info