Marco Biagi: Principles trump politics in decision on Nato

Proposed membership of Nato has split SNP. Picture: Reuters
Proposed membership of Nato has split SNP. Picture: Reuters
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The SNP would be wrong to perform a U-turn in the vain hope of gaining referendum votes, writes Marco Biagi

It’s odd to be characterised as a rebel for upholding what has been the policy of your party for 30 years, and doing so entirely in accordance with the democratic structures set out in that party’s rulebook. Those democratic structures will give SNP members an important decision this weekend: not just about our policy towards membership of Nato but also what kind of party the SNP is.

Party members should, above all, be cautious of the flimsy argument that changing positions to back an independent Scotland’s Nato membership would make a 2014 Yes vote more likely. Such thinking feeds into the false narrative that voting Yes means endorsing only the SNP vision of an independent Scotland. Worse, though, this argument leads to a dangerous – though in my view false – perception that a Nato U-turn might be being pursued for political gain rather than out of genuine belief.

The question of Nato membership will be an issue for the first elections to an independent Scottish Parliament in 2016. Voters will decide on Scotland’s direction in subsequent elections, and the Yes campaign should not be afraid to say so. If voters in an independent Scotland wish to back a party that supports Nato membership, they will have ample chance to do so.

SNP defence spokesman Angus Robertson is pursuing this change because he considers Nato membership the best way forward for Scotland. While I do accept some of his arguments, we fundamentally disagree. I believe that we should seek protection through alliances that provide collective security by means other than the threat of the use of nuclear weapons, which underpins all Nato doctrine. As a member, Scotland would be a lone voice for reform in an organisation whose nuclearised stance holds consensus and has persisted long after the end of the Cold War. We must do more than remove nuclear weapons from our own soil. Our objection as a country, rather than “Not in our back yard” should be “Not in our name”.

These are disagreements of substance, yet more and more I see arguments in favour of Nato membership whose foundations are no more than the skittish whims of opinion polls. Every time a supporter of Nato membership argues for the abandonment of a long-held and principled policy solely by quoting an opinion poll, the political ghost of Tony Blair rises up and shakes them by the hand. Opinion polls should be barometers of success, not weather vanes that point you in whatever direction the wind is blowing.

The polling evidence is actually startlingly weak. Before the last Scottish Parliament, one of my roles was helping to write SNP poll questions and analyse the answers. Nothing is more important in an opinion poll than the wording of the question. I note that only the other side of this debate has had access to party resources to commission those questions. Money well spent, I’m sure.

I see no polls setting out statements for and against, then asking respondents to decide. This is a much more common approach to polling on complex issues such as Nato membership, where the electorate at large is not yet familiar with the arguments. It would probably paint a much more even picture than those polls that have been presented thus far. Neither do I see evidence that Nato is a crucial issue for those voters. I see no “Would you be more likely to vote Yes if…” polls on Nato being released into the public domain. I can only conclude that support for Nato is broad but extremely shallow. Set against the towering economic questions of independence, there would simply be no appreciable positive effect on the likelihood of a Yes vote.

What most voters do support and rate ever more highly are courage, conviction and consistency in leaders. Leaders who display those qualities are more likely to be trusted and their statements believed. The importance of vision and aspiration is now in the blood of the modern SNP, and above all else has helped us stand out in a time of corrosive and increasingly all-pervading cynicism about politicians.

Scotland has never needed encouragement to disapprove of David Cameron, but public perception of him south of the Border has plummeted as he has been seen to bounce from one political direction to another like a hyperactive pinball – for example, the pasty and caravan taxes, Europe, the House of Lords, expanding Heathrow. Meanwhile, the only people left who believe in Nick Clegg now must surely be members of his immediate family. Following the compromise of their long-standing principles on universal benefits, this is a lesson the Scottish Labour Party is now also learning.

If there are SNP delegates who wish to vote to support Nato membership to avoid giving our opponents a stick with which to beat us, it is too late. The moment the resolution was tabled, the opposition started salivating, knowing that the choice to be presented to members was between a leadership defeat or a U-turn.

SNP delegates must reflect deeply not just on what they are voting for, but why they are voting that way. Those who believe or do not believe in Nato membership should vote accordingly. Those who doubt the need to change a long-standing policy but might consider doing so for tactical reasons should look long and hard at the logic of that decision.

It is a false calculus. The SNP has taken a position on Nato membership for 30 years now that is both moral and practical. Members must listen to the better angels of their nature. Throwing our consistency away based on any false whispered temptations of expediency would diminish the SNP and all that we have come together to stand for.

• Marco Biagi is SNP MSP for Edinburgh Central