Lesley Riddoch: Nato U-turn a sign of things to come

Protestors from 'No to Nato' demonstrate outside the SNP conference. Picture: TSPL
Protestors from 'No to Nato' demonstrate outside the SNP conference. Picture: TSPL
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SUPPORT for the SNP leadership’s plans may cost it both votes and trust if principles are compromised, writes Lesley Riddoch

So where now for the Nato-supporting SNP? Officially both sides have buried the hatchet (if not quite shaken hands) and accepted that party policy now permits a possible SNP government in a possible independent Scotland to seek Nato membership if the nuclear alliance accepts the removal of Trident from the Clyde. There are three highly conditional elements to the new policy stance – and yet the Rubicon has been crossed.

The divisive Nato debate is over, the leadership has won and the SNP can now focus all energy on the independence vote (and the small matter of governing Scotland) for the next two years.

Delegates were buoyed by a weekend opinion poll suggesting 52 per cent of Scots will vote yes if another Con-Dem coalition looms in 2014. Robust speeches by Alex “no Lord Snooty” Salmond, Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Neil settled nerves and the humiliating resignation of Andrew Mitchell as Tory Whip created a glow of smug satisfaction that David Cameron’s government had managed to score another own-goal so soon.

And yet the Nato vote is not water under the bridge. Not yet.

For the 365 delegates who defied the leadership, it hurt to lose. Not just because of the strength of feeling or narrowness of defeat (29 votes) but because of the language used, attitudes struck and uncompromising nature of leadership control.

The debate was universally (and unusually) praised in the press for the high quality of passionate, emotional and completely unscripted debate which raised the bar well above anything seen at other political party conferences.

But the harsh words still resonate. Opponents of Nato membership were accused of being “politically naive”, unprepared for the “big league” of world politics and ready to “alienate” the majority of Scots.

The leadership was called “dishonest, hypocritical and unethical” and accused of applying “undue pressure” to MSPs who maintained the SNP’s 30-year-long policy of opposition to Nato membership. Those were hard words to hear – on both sides. Angus Robertson’s “Who Dares Wins” remark after his hair’s breadth victory probably didn’t help. One cabinet minister said later: “Nobody voted for Nato without holding their nose, but it had to be done. We should’ve changed policy years ago when Nato wasn’t a lost organisation tumbling round the Middle East in search of a post-Soviet mission.”

So why join now? Has principle been traded for popularity or is the Nato vote all about pragmatic positioning, not deep-seated policy change? Many will scoff at the notion principle ever operates in corridors of power. Lofty ideals and high-minded, moral arguments are seen as the luxuries of impotent opposition. In office, in power and in government, compromise and electability are all that count.

That hard-nosed analysis carries unmistakable echoes of Tony Blair – and New Labour’s long fall from grace. Life-long nationalists may be able to swallow hard and accept Alex Salmond’s word that Nato agreement on Trident removal will be extracted before Scotland joins the club. But life-long Labour supporters who voted SNP because of its principled policy stances and non-negotiable opposition to all things nuclear may feel it’s a bad case of déjà vu.

The Nato vote was only partly about Nato. It was also about process and internal party democracy. The same questions could be heard everywhere around the Perth conference venue. Why was such a big policy shift not discussed in policy-making forums like the National Council or National Assembly? Why did most members hear about the plan first via the media – indeed, why did such an evidently divisive issue have to be raised at all?

Some now fear any policy favoured by the leadership can be described as a potential obstacle to independence, handed to a sceptical, change-averse media who then commission opinion polls, provoke public angst and force next year’s SNP conference to choose between its own instinctive convictions and the superior electoral antennae of its party leadership on another vital topic – maybe the monarchy.

And what larger message does the Nato vote send? Is Scotland better together with a nuclear alliance? Is she too wee and too poor to have her own defence strategy? Are Scottish voters too stupid to know Nato is not the security umbrella it’s cracked up to be? Unfortunate collisions with SNP slogans are there to be exploited. Mind you, Trident-retaining Labour may prefer not to bother.

So will the SNP’s new, hard-won defence strategy make independence more saleable to swithering Scots? Who knows? Anyone with a chronic fear of heights is unlikely to jump from a plane just because the parachute has passed international quality control. Independence is an imponderable. Post-2014 uncertainty can be gainsayed but never completely allayed. That’s why trust matters – and as the Tories, Labour and the Lib Dems have found, trust suddenly lost can take years, even decades to regain.

The arguments on either side of the Nato debate have now been well articulated – time alone will tell who is right. But the SNP must take care not to place its own Holy Grail of independence above everything else.

Alex Salmond and the SNP leadership have snaked a wily path in government, mixing electoral expedience with cussed, stubborn principle. Left-leaning voters have watched and been quietly impressed as the SNP matches populist policies with unpopular battles like minimum alcohol pricing, prisons reform, Megrahi’s release, the avant garde Curriculum for Excellence and indeed independence itself.

Maintaining that balance matters. Moral authority matters. That’s partly why this weekend’s Sunday Times poll revealed the prospect of another Con-Dem government at Westminster would be an independence game-changer. Voters obviously want to dodge another five years of Westminster-led austerity – but they also want a new era of principled politics. They want a world where ideals are not there to be traded away, sniggered about in private and mocked in public.

Are the SNP really just the same as everyone else? Does every politician, every party and every cause have its price? Was fear of American government opposition in 2014 really important enough to justify a debate that did what no other politician, policy, election or predicament has hitherto managed – putting the mighty Alex Salmond within inches of embarrassing, public defeat? The preoccupation with power at all costs was precisely what prompted scunnered Labour voters to switch to the SNP in 2011.

History has a horrible habit of repeating itself.