Leaders: Will the SNP embrace Nato?

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LONG-TIME observers of the SNP suspect the party is preparing the ground for a historic shift in its stance on defence.

As the Scottish Government prepares its prospectus for independence, one of the policies coming under particular scrutiny is the Nationalists’ long-standing commitment that an independent Scotland would pull out of Nato.

In the past the SNP has stuck rigidly to this position, saying a sovereign Scotland could not be part of the command structure of an organisation that had the nuclear deterrent as a bedrock of its strategy. Opponents of the SNP have found this policy a useful stick with which to beat them – many voters are uncomfortable with the idea of Scotland standing outwith Nato’s protective umbrella in a dangerous and unpredictable world. The policy has also served to reinforce some voters’ fear – encouraged by pro-UK parties – that an independent Scotland would be isolated in the international community.

Recently there have been signs that the Nato policy may be vulnerable as the SNP develops a new take on independence designed to be less threatening to those voters – currently a majority – who want to further Scotland’s interests but only within the security of the United Kingdom. This approach presents us with a vision of an independent Scotland which still has the Queen as head of state, still has the pound as its currency and still has the Bank of England in control of monetary policy. Will this list soon have another addition – an independent Scotland that is still a member of Nato? This would be consistent with some of the key principles being stressed by SNP strategists as the discussion about independence develops. For one, the party has emphasised the importance of a sovereign Scotland being a good neighbour in the international community – though it is hard to see how this squares with an acrimonious confrontation over the removal of a military capability that is a key part of those neighbours’ defence.

The SNP is also setting great store on the fact that an independent Scotland would inherit all UK treaty commitments (thus making the case for Scotland’s easy entry into the European Union). To suggest Scotland will take a pick’n’mix approach to these commitments would again be inconsistent with the party’s emollient approach. The SNP’s defence spokesman, Angus Robertson, has raised the possibility of Scotland sharing defence facilities with the remainder of the UK (rUK) – but would this be possible if rUK was in Nato and Scotland was not? Why should Nato support a country that shuns it? Other countries might well resent Scotland trying to hitch a “free ride” on their defence capabilities.

All this goes to illustrate how much of a problem could be caused by the issue raised today by defence expert Professor Malcolm Chalmers. His analysis of the defence requirements of an independent Scotland raises many questions to add to those already being asked. But aside from practical considerations, the political issues he raises will be troublesome for those in the SNP who are keen to change course on Nato. It is hard to see how an independent Scotland could be a full member of the military alliance without signing up to Nato’s pro-nuclear principles. The question then arises: would an SNP change of mind on Nato necessitate an SNP change of mind on nuclear weapons? And given the difficulties Scotland’s new nuclear policy would cause rUK, would some form of time-delayed phasing-out of nuclear weapons on Scottish soil give Alex Salmond a very strong negotiating position when it comes to any independence settlement?

The wrong note

EDUCATIONALISTS say learning to play a musical instrument has a worth beyond the simple pleasure of mastering the ability to knock out a tune. The learning process itself is a useful way of disciplining the mind. Developing the necessary skills is comparable – in the benefits it bestows to a child – to learning a language.

All the more bewildering then that a number of Scottish councils have imposed tuition fees on pupils who want to sit music exams.

Education authorities are undoubtedly under financial pressures, and inevitably there will be a squeeze on budgets, but to regard music as somehow disposable compared to other subjects is to underestimate its value in the curriculum.

There is a significant difference in children taking a musical instrument as a hobby and children looking to sit exams and perhaps base careers on music. Those seeking SQA qualifications should not be asked to pay for the tuition necessary to prepare them for those exams.

Scotland has a proud tradition of free schooling going back hundreds of years, and this principle has recently been defended by the Scottish Government in higher, as well as high school, education. This move by some councils is a retrograde step and should be reversed.