Independent Scotland should be a Nato member so it can play its part in maintaining peace – Stewart McDonald MP

“The United Nations was not created in order to bring us to heaven,” argued its second Secretary-General, “but to save us from hell.”

Royal Marines take part in a training exercise in Dalbeattie with forces from several other Nato members and partner countries (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
Royal Marines take part in a training exercise in Dalbeattie with forces from several other Nato members and partner countries (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

Along with the other imperfect institutions created from the ashes of the Second World War, it has largely achieved that goal: Europeans living in the decades after the creation of the UN, the Council of Europe and Nato saw the longest period of relative peace in their continent’s history.

While the horrors of the Yugoslav War and collective trauma of the Troubles remind us that this peace was neither universal nor perfect, the relative lack of inter-state conflict in Europe during the late 20th century was an historical aberration following centuries of bloodshed.

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This fragile peace was made possible by those multilateral institutions explicitly designed to increase co-operation and interdependence among the peoples and governments of the West.

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Support for these institutions in the SNP is largely uncontroversial. We openly aspire to membership of the United Nations as a sovereign state and have been explicit in our belief that the most prosperous future for an independent Scotland is to be found as a member of the European Union.

Yet, a decade ago, when SNP members voted at our conference to back an independent Scotland’s membership of Nato, it was a contentious issue for the party at the time.

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There are legitimate reasons to oppose Nato membership – indeed Iceland’s Prime Minister is an opponent yet has stated she has no desire to remove her country from the alliance.

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But I firmly believe that the arguments for membership of these institutions strongly outweigh those against and, ten years on, I continue to believe that an independent Scotland’s security and safety is best guaranteed as a non-nuclear member of Nato, just like Denmark and Norway.

I am pro-Nato because I am pro-peace. My own political journey, like so many people my age, started in the run-up to the Iraq War. I marched in the streets against Tony Blair’s bellicosity, against the devastation we knew would be wreaked upon the innocent civilians of Iraq and against the unilateral and illegal invasion of Iraq without UN or Nato approval.

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In a complex and increasingly unpredictable world, the key to our security lies in multilateralism, international co-operation and public support for our democratic institutions. The invasion of Iraq ran contrary to all of these.

But Nato is a defensive alliance: it is a consensual organisation of states who ally together to share the burden of protecting their sovereignty. This is a point often misconstrued or misrepresented by those who have objected to the "eastward expansion” of Nato, which is sometimes given as a precursor for the current conflict.

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This is a curious phrase. It portrays the alliance as if it were some form of international fungus, spreading ever eastward and hoovering up unwilling states in its path; it presents the expansion of a consensual, collective security organisation in a manner which denies agency to the many states – some of them smaller than Scotland – and their peoples who have voluntarily sought to join the alliance to protect their sovereignty and citizens from outside threats.

These threats did not disappear with the Berlin Wall. The first European war of the 21st century was the Russian invasion of Georgia (an aspiring Nato member) in 2008, while the world today looks on as Russia threatens to invade Ukraine (also an aspiring Nato member) for the second time since 2014.

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Since the fall of the USSR, states from across the former Eastern Bloc have looked to their East and to their West and chosen to seek shelter in the alliance. As the events in Ukraine remind us, despite the best efforts of the architects of the post-war international order, the spectre of war continues to haunt Europe.

Scotland is, in so many ways, blessed by our geography. Tucked up at the north-west corner of Europe, we have enviable access to fresh water and modern sources of energy that stand us in good stead to tackle the challenges of the 21st century.

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We share a land border with a country which will be a close friend and ally after Scotland votes Yes and face no threat like the ones the former Eastern Bloc countries do. So why do we need Nato?

First, our island position risks lulling us into a false sense of security: while there may never be an invasion across the border at Berwick, Russian aircraft and naval vessels venture with increasing frequency and boldness near to Scottish waters and airspace.

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Just this month, RAF jets were scrambled at Lossiemouth to intercept four Russian military aircraft north of Scotland. To join and contribute to a defensive alliance – and to play our part in shouldering the burden of protecting our North Atlantic neighbourhood – makes sense for a small maritime nation like Scotland.

And secondly, and most simply, it is because joining Nato is a mark of our values. An independent Scotland will aspire to be a good global citizen, playing its part in protecting peace and common security.

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Institutions like the EU, Nato and the UN are international public goods: if every Western state were to forgo the alliance and go it alone – or worse, trust that another state will do the work of keeping the peace – we would all be worse off.

As a small state in a world witnessing a return to great power competition, Scotland needs these alliances and institutions more than our bigger neighbours.

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I remain firm in my belief that we in the SNP made the right decision a decade ago when we voted to support an independent Scotland’s Nato membership. The threat of another war on the European continent serves as a potent warning of just how easily our fragile peace can disintegrate, and reminds us just how vigorously it needs to be defended.

Stewart McDonald MP is SNP spokesperson for defence

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