The SNP seeks to deliver 50 shades of grey on defence
Years ago, when I was wont to hang about SNP HQ, there would often be a foreign media team. And they were usually there to see Angus Robertson. His linguistic skills, his contacts harvested from his stint working in the media in Europe, his exuberance and his unabashed self-belief brought many a camera crew staggering up the staircase and onto the second floor of North Charlotte Street.
At the time, in the thick of whichever election campaign was being fought, it didn’t really make a lot of sense for one of the party’s brightest young things to spend so much time answering questions in German or French or gesticulating widely in some other tongue. It might have kept him out of the pub but wasn’t there something more useful he could be doing?
Now it does.
Now that the party is within sight of its holy grail, all those relationships with international media make sense. At the launch of the referendum campaign back in January, there was probably as many foreign press and media hanging on the First Minister’s every word as there were domestiques. Angus Robertson could look on and be content that all that early work was not wasted.
For Scotland needs international friends in influential places if it is to persuade the world that it really is serious about getting on.
And while there are many on our own shores – most usually in the Westminster political elite – who see our dabbling with the idea of self-determination as something not to be taken seriously, others elsewhere do. They have after all, in their lifetimes seen Slovakia cede from the Czech republic, the Baltic nations of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia all assert their independence and even wee Montenegro throw off the yoke of domination of their Serbian big brother. Independence can and does happen to other nations. Usually peacefully and pretty successfully.
What concerns them though is that, contrary to what the anti-independence lot might try to persuade us, Scotland is in fact of strategic geographic and geo-political importance.
All those oil and gas reserves; our position as the furthermost outpost before America; our coastal shores and important fishing grounds; even our heritage as an armed force worth reckoning with. Which is why the SNP’s foreign and defence policy has prompted many a furrowed brow: to many other small, independent countries who rely on alliances and international treaties to make their and our worlds safer, lots of things don’t seem to add up. The no nukes, no to NATO stance seems very black and white in a world that is increasingly dominated by shades of grey.
So the detailed resolution submitted by Anguses Robertson and McNeil represents the latest marker in the SNP’s journey to the referendum, smoothing away yet another of those rough edges, muddying the waters and making this key policy area a whole lot more fluid.
Thus, the no nukes policy becomes a commitment to “negotiate the speediest safe transition of the nuclear fleet from Faslane“. And the no to NATO stance spells out that actually, on independence, like so many other transitional issues, Scotland will inherit treaty obligations. The next SNP government – the first elected in an independent Scotland – would opt for maintaining NATO membership, so long as we could be non-nuclear and only participate in UN sanctioned military operations. Otherwise, we will opt for the Partnership for Peace programme that works alongside NATO in many peace-keeping operations and satisfies many other small nations like Finland, Austria and Ireland.
And there we have it: a policy with enough ifs, buts and maybes to satisfy potential international allies and silence some of the critics. But also one which creates a domestic and potentially, an internal feeding frenzy.
For many in the SNP, both the anti-nuclear and NATO stance are red line issues. Or rather, they are sandbag ones.
To date, longtime SNP supporters have been prepared to jettison all sorts of ballast in order to get to this high point in the party’s and the country’s history. Throwing these totemic defence issues overboard in order to give the party the lift it needs with voters – and opinion polls tend to show that the Scottish public is less averse to NATO than members are – might make sense, but many will be unprepared to do so.
In solving an international conundrum, the referendum campaign architects might be creating another one. Many who have tramped hundreds of miles, had their knuckles scraped and mis-shapen by spring-loaded letterboxes, who count leaflet runs to get to sleep instead of sheep, who’ve had doors slammed in their faces and once viewed a saved deposit as a success – in short, many of those who have carried the burden of an unfashionable cause through much less popular times – might see the triangulation on defence as a sandbag too far.
This is perhaps the biggest gamble of all. In order to persuade more to vote yes, to bring still more into the SNP’s big tent, the strategists have calculated that those who have got this far might bluster but will ultimately opt to stay under the canvas. Having worked so hard to get this far, few will follow through on their threat to opt out at this stage. And they may find themselves campaigning for a yes in spite of what their party is offering, on a prospectus they are no longer signed up to.
But in order to deliver success in the referendum, those who are replacing black and white with all these shades of grey, must surely sense that they are risking sacrificing their own party, for it is hard to see how it can continue in its current form after independence has been won.