The SNP’s position on nuclear weapons and NATO membership is incoherent - Euan McColm

As a teenager in the 1980s, I was convinced I’d perish in a nuclear war.

The threat of Armageddon seemed ever present. Fear of nuclear attack pervaded the culture; from news reports about cold war tensions and peace camp protests to popular music and drama, the bomb loomed large.

There is a generation, now, still scarred almost 40 years later by watching the BBC Drama Threads, about the bleak aftermath of a nuclear strike on the north of England.

As the 80s dawned, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, all but ignored for the previous 20 years, enjoyed an astonishing surge in support. At one point, the organisation claimed a membership of more than quarter of a million. It’s not possible to verify that now but if the number of CND badges on display at the time is anything to go by, it seems entirely plausible.

Protesters gather for an independence rally campaigning for nuclear disarmament at the North Gate of Her Majesty's Naval Base in Helensburgh. Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images


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To the idealistic teenager, CND was hugely appealing. Who didn’t want a world free of nuclear weapons? Who didn’t enjoy going on a march?

To CND members, the matter was as black and white as the organisation’s iconic logo. Nothing less than the United Kingdom’s disposal of its nuclear arsenal would do.

While many were seduced by this message, others saw a huge flaw. How would the people of the United Kingdom become safer if the government got rid of nukes while other - sometimes hostile - states retained theirs?

As Russia’s war on Ukraine intensifies, thoughts return to the nuclear question. President Vladimir Putin’s declaration that he has put Russia’s nuclear deterrent forces on “high alert” may be bluff and bluster but which of us could declare our certainty that he is not prepared to press the red button?


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Perhaps the only thing that will focus the mind of the Russian president - or, more likely, the minds of those currently keeping him in power - when it comes to the question of using nuclear weapons is the prospect that he would face devastating retaliation. The old doctrine of mutually assured destruction still breathes.

In Scotland, the issue of nuclear weapons has long been at the centre of our political debate. The SNP’s firm opposition to the siting of armed nuclear submarines at Faslane has been a major plank of its campaigning for decades. During the 2014 independence referendum campaign, the SNP went with the appealing but simplistic message that a Yes vote would mean the end of nukes in Scotland. The fantastical sums an independent Scotland would save by no longer contributing towards the nuclear deterrent would be used for nobler things. “Bairns not bombs” went the exasperating slogan.

The nationalists’ position on the location of nuclear submarines is problematic and has been so since 2012 when delegates at the SNP’s annual conference voted to overturn the party’s 30-year opposition to NATO. This was a decision, enthusiastically supported by the party leadership, aimed at settling the nerves of voters who might have harboured concerns about the security of an independent Scotland. Against strong opposition, the leadership prevailed bringing the SNP into the mainstream on defence issues.

It's extraordinary now, just 10 years on, to imagine that some serious figures within the SNP believed opposition to NATO to be a major vote-winning position.


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Nonetheless, those opposed to NATO support had a good question. How was it compatible for the SNP to be both opposed to nuclear weapons and in favour of sheltering beneath NATO’s nuclear umbrella?

Then SNP leader Alex Salmond said this was a "perfectly feasible" scenario. Salmond has said a lot of things over the years.

The reality was - and remains - that the SNP’s position on nuclear weapons and NATO membership is incoherent.

The SNP’s narrative on nuclear weapons has - of course - always had Scotland as victim. To listen to the nationalist is to hear how Trident submarines are located in Scotland not for strategic reasons but as some kind of symbol of the worthlessness of Scottish lives. They - the morally bankrupt UK government - stuck the nukes in Scotland because they're too dangerous to locate in England.


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This is the sort of one-dimensional stuff that generates more heat than light. Scotland is not a dumping ground for the UK’s nuclear weapons. It's an integral part of the UK. They are not “Westminster's" bombs, they are ours.

Given Alex Salmond’s decision to work for the Kremlin’s propaganda channel RT (formerly Russia Today) after his defeat at the ballet box, who knows in which direction policy on nuclear weapons may have moved in an independent Scotland. We should be grateful we didn’t have to live through that particular learning experience.

If some mechanism existed through which the nuclear bomb could be uninvented then these matters would be considerably simplified. Inconveniently, we live in the real world in which nuclear weapons exist and are in the possession of states such as Putin's Russia.

Those most strongly in favour of nuclear disarmament have, I think, an instinct to view those who disagree as bloodthirsty; he who supports the retention of nuclear weapons must, almost by definition, be a monster.


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The truth, of course, is that it is perfectly possible to be in favour of the existence of the nuclear arsenal while believing all possible steps should be taken to avoid its use.

The SNP’s contradictory positions on nuclear weapons and NATO membership should no longer be indulged. The state of the world right now means greater clarity is needed from a party proposing the creation of a new, independent country.

Vladimir Putin’s current actions, I think, strengthen the case for the retention of nuclear weapons.


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