Voting yes will enable us to say no

When silence is deafening, it is often also illuminating.

Yesterday, Scotland on Sunday published a frontpage splash suggesting that independent Scotland might not be able to rid itself of nuclear weapons, should the SNP abandon its longstanding commitment to non-membership of NATO.  The claim was made by Professor Malcolm Chalmers, who is defence policy director at the Royal United Services Institute, in a paper on defence in an independent Scotland commissioned by the newspaper.

Needless to say, the splash picked out a couple of ripe plums from what is a considered and balanced treatment of a range of defence issues, albeit approached with a glass half empty.  Professor Chalmers had many interesting thoughts, however, the NATO-nuclear issue was the one deemed newsworthy – for obvious reasons.

More interestingly, there has been no response from the SNP, nor any of the online outlets which leap to rebut bad news (or even sometimes an alternative viewpoint) for the Scottish Government and the indie referendum.  There are lengthy comment threads at the Scotland on Sunday online, but they largely contain irrelevant chaff.   Elsewhere, the Cyber Nats have been curiously silent – even allowing for the Easter holiday weekend.

Only the Reid Foundation found time to issue a stark warning: “Whomever is briefing that the SNP is going to U-turn on its opposition to Nato must be stopped immediately by the Party leader. If this speculation is allowed to continue, the inference that the left will draw may irreparably damage the Party’s support.”

Robin McAlpine suggests that shifting its stance on NATO is fraught with risk for the SNP: “I doubt that is the intention of the party generally to pick a fight with the left, but if it believes (as New Labour did) that the left can be ignored because the left has nowhere to go then it will pay a price and it will deserve to.”

The potential political consequences of a policy shift are worth returning to separately but they do suggest one reason for silence on this splash.  When SNP-minded folk are discomfited by policy movement, they go to ground.  Like an inverse barometer of acceptance, we can read into the current lack of chatter a considerable amount of unease.

It does not help that the Professor has raised issues that deserve, nay require proper scrutiny and debate – issues which the SNP is keen not to have aired at the current juncture, precisely because they are so troublesome. Some consider that we only need to worry about sorting such issues after independence.  And others are happy to take an ostrich-like approach on such toughies.

Blind faith also comes into it: whatever the party leadership determines on such matters is what is necessary and good to get us through the winning post of independence.  Don’t make waves, don’t rock the boat, and whatever you do, don’t give any of the enemies of independence succour by exposing a fault-line.

It demonstrates admirably the discipline in the party’s rank and file and has played a crucial role in recent SNP electoral success.  But these are precisely the debates and discussions we should be having right now;  of course, everything is an option but people – especially doubters- want to know the possibilities on a wide range of issues – including defence and the kind of things that Professor Chalmers discusses.

Of our conventional forces, which will be most important to build and maintain?  What kind of air capacity, if any, shall we need?  What would a Scottish Defence Force look like? Will women be allowed or required to fight?

Do we want to have an arms industry or will we be happy to forego these jobs and replace them with less objectionable employment opportunities?  If not, how would such a skills capacity and export trade square with a previously stated aim of becoming one of the world’s peacemaking nations?

Yet, if one of the biggest future threats is from cyber-terrorism, surely our skills in this field is something we would want to continue to develop and contribute to globally?

Professor Chalmers approaches his analysis with some loaded suppositions – that Scotland would need to bolster against a possible Irish variant of terrorism, ignoring the fact that for inter-related cultural, historical and practical reasons, Scotland was rather protected against this possibility at the height of the Troubles.  Moreover, he pre-supposes that border controls in Scotland as part of the UK are currently well invested when the reality is very different.

He also queries whether Scots would still be able to use rUK training camps and leadership colleges post-independence, without contemplating why we might want to.  Independence would give us the right and opportunity to seek mutually beneficial relationships with other countries’ training facilities – as exists between UK and many others currently.  As someone who grew up with the screech and boom of low-flying aircraft and the spectacle of NATO exercises (with men dressed as bushes appearing out of burns regularly), why wouldn’t this kind of activity continue – if we wanted it to, of course, and whether or not we were members of NATO?

Currently, many who doubt independence tend to put obstacles in the way.  I’m pretty sanguine about whether or not independent Scotland seeks membership of NATO:  I can see pros and cons to being on the inside of the tent.  But I am implacably opposed – like most SNP members and supporters (including the First Minister and Depute First Minister) – to nuclear weapons remaining on Scottish soil.  And while the Professor acknowledges that most folk in Scotland want rid of Trident, he fails to link this aspiration to the need to vote for independence in order to achieve this.  He might be right – it might take decades rather than years to be rid of nuclear weapons from our soil, but better that than never.  Only by voting yes will we get the chance to say no.

While refusal by NATO to allow a nuclear weapon-free Scotland in might be a deal breaker, the Professor indicates that it has not prevented other countries who have been in NATO from the start, despite never having a nuclear option.  He is right to consider whether or not the rules might be different for an acceding nation in the current climate, but given the complexity of current membership and co-operation arrangements between and among countries in a whole host of international treaty organisations, there is nothing to suggest that Scotland would be treated with less flexibility than many others, if – and it is a big if – independent Scotland sought to join NATO or other such alliances.

These quibbles aside, Professor Chalmers has made a very good attempt at teasing out some of the defence issues for post-independence Scotland, not least its cost and how we might afford that.  It’s a shame then that his efforts have been ignored by most on the pro-independence side, at least publicly.

Yes, they are matters that can be sorted after we get there but pretending they don’t exist and that people don’t want a debate on the detail and possible options now – before they vote yes or no – puts at risk our ever getting there at all.

16 thoughts on “Voting yes will enable us to say no

  1. Pingback: Voting yes will enable us to say no « A Burdz Eye View | Scottish Politics |

  2. SOS and any Scotsman publication are articles that should not be put aside lightly, they should be violentlly flung. They are totally discredited and with circulation figures around the Cheviot Sheep fanciers magazine level, their views are an irrelevance, IMHO. So the lack of response to their scaremogering negative propaganda, is dignified and proper. You could add to that the MSM in general. It is Easter people are on holiday, unwinding and away from the negative girning of failed bed wetting journalists like Barnes and his ilk.

    “The potential political consequences of a policy shift are worth returning to separately but they do suggest one reason for silence on this splash. When SNP-minded folk are discomfited by policy movement, they go to ground. Like an inverse barometer of acceptance, we can read into the current lack of chatter a considerable amount of unease.”

    What about other minded folk, I am thinking “speaking as a mother” Johan Lament and her deafining silence since becoming leader on Trident?

  3. In fairness to Peter you asked why SNP members weren’t discussing it and his answer was bang on. It’;s just the same old same old. I dare say that there wiill be a defence/NATO debate as part of the wider referendum debate. But for most SNP people that is in our diaries for after May 3rd. We have until Autumn 2014 for this. We don’t need to react to every single press story and we need to influence the undecideds by creating our own narrative around defence, not by reacting to others.

  4. Chalmers’ comments on Trident in SoS were superficial. Indeed the whole piece was poor. The arguments contained in Chalmers & Walker’s “Troubled Waters” as to why – even if the Scottish and rUK governments were to agree on the matter – keeping Trident at Faslane is not a simple route to take were entirely ignored.

    Analogies with the Irish Treaty Ports should be cautionary. The UK exercised “special” rights only over the Irish ports concerned and in a very low key way, whereas maintaining Trident at Faslane implies a large presence of UK uniformed military personnel and spies all over the region, regular UK military convoys transporting nuclear warheads across Scotland’s roads, and so on. The grudging acceptance of Holyrood would be nothing like enough as the police and judiciary would have to be involved up to their necks in keeping Trident safe and operational. But the most important lesson of the Irish and Cypriot cases – and of Guantanamo Bay – is that an indefinite lease deal would be madness. Any lease deal would have to be of fixed duration and should, just to be safe, be expensive enough for the rUK to make repeated renewals unlikely.

    But important as the attitude in Scotland to Trident remaining would be, it would be only a very small part of a much bigger picture. No nuclear weapons state now or ever has relied entirely upon foreign bases for its weapons. Yes, the US had weapons abroad, as did the USSR, but those were only a small part of a much greater whole and the weapons were plainly under American/Soviet control. The rUK and Scotland would be breaking new ground in terms of the international nuclear non-proliferation regime. The International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations, and all of the rUK’s unfriends across the world together with those states – from India and Pakistan to North Korea and Iran – which had an interest in diverting attention from their own nuclear weapons programmes would all take an active and generally hostile interest in the whole affair. It would obviously be difficult for an independent Scotland to have a distinct voice in international affairs if world+dog saw it as nothing more than Westminster’s (and Washington’s) lapdog.

    I suspect that some form of compromise will prove expedient, if not desirable. But compromise is not a synonym for surrender.

    The existing Trident submarines will be operable only until the late 2020s. The Trident missiles and their warheads will, unless a major life-extension programme is undertaken, have a similar lifespan. As yet, no irrevocable decision has been made by Westminster on replacing the Trident submarines on a like-for-like basis or – although here I am less certain – on life extension programmes. It is therefore the case that today, and also in autumn 2014, Westminster could choose to replace Trident with a dissimilar nuclear deterrent system, one which could be airborne or based on submarine-launched cruise missiles. There is a world of difference between an agreement allowing Trident to live out its days at Faslane, being retired around 2030, and agreeing to host a new system. That new system would be no more than shiny BAE power point slides in 2014 and might last until after 2050,

  5. I too read the SoS article and as always with these stories it is written on the assumption that , in an independent Scotland, it would be the SNP that would form the government. The writer, as so many erroneously do at the moment, equates a referendum vote for Scotland to be an independent country with a vote for the SNP. This is of course complete nonsense. If these writers actually read the SG Consultation document they would see that it sets out the timetable on the run up to the referendum vote and what would happen after a yes vote. The Scottish Parliamentary elections scheduled for 2016 would be in an independent Scotland. All parties would , I assume, put up candidates and seek to form a government. As this is only four years away would it not be sensible to start asking what the Labour, Lib. Dem. and Conservative parties policies would be on defence, tax, EU membership, NATO membership, etc. an independent Scotland. At the moment it is only the SNP that are being asked to ‘explain themselves’!!.

  6. The SNP have an excellent opportunity hear to respond to Chalmers. NATO membership is major Defence issue to be answered. Everyone knows the non-nuclear policy. It’s accepted. So what is the policy on conventional defence?

    I’m back to the pro-active arguments again. The SNP will certainly be aware of Chalmers, so why not wrongfoot their opponents and respond? You know, a party in government that takes the initiative. This party gets things done, and even accept criticism.

  7. How much independent Scottish military policy/strategy should be discussed publicly? How widely and deeply should it be discussed with what will be a foreign power? When will the rUK define their post independence military policy/strategy and what discussions will they have with Scotland about them? Will they be discussed publicly? Anyone calling for Scotland to provide answers should also be calling for rUK to be providing them as well.

  8. I didn’t even know about this article until you pointed it out, such is the rareness of my visits to the SoS website. I tend to rely on Tweeters to point me in the direction of the latest media kerfuffle, so if no one has found anything interesting to say on the article, then it just doesn’t appear on my radar. Of course, that in itself is perhaps a sign of a big it’ll-go-away-if-we-ignore-it attitude throughout the nationalist community. On this particular matter, the fact that the SNP have indicated their stance will appear in the forthcoming prospectus for independence means many people probably just don’t want to speak out either way, in case they look a bit silly when the SNP publish a completely different stance to them.

    As to the matter at hand, i.e. NATO membership, I’m agnostic about it. My understanding was that the SNP’s long-standing view on NATO membership was predicated mainly on an assumption that being a member of NATO would make it difficult to remove nuclear weapons from our shores. If there is a way around that, then the argument against NATO becomes slightly weaker. If it turns out that a policy of leaving NATO would actually turn off more potential independence voters than it would attract, then pragmatism has to come into play. Of course, if it is true that getting rid of Trident is incompatible with NATO membership, then it’s a no-brainer, and indeed, that alone makes it much easier to sell the policy.

    Personally, I think I favour putting forward a strong case for signing up to Partnership for Peace and highlighting the role those signatory countries perform in peacekeeping, as well as the dearth of threats of attack these countries are subject to; but at the same time not making NATO membership a red-line referendum issue. We can’t opt out under the current constitutional arrangement, so I’m happy to treat it as a post-independence issue, perhaps the main issue for Scotland’s first ever defence minister, Angus Robertson, to sink his teeth into (see what I did there?)

    But as with so many things, we need only look across the Irish Sea to see an example of a country very similar to Scotland managing perfectly well without NATO membership.

  9. Entirerly with Peter Bell on this.
    And I could add that reacting to stuff like this is what gives it oxygen.
    They love it when we get agitated.
    I have resolved my problems with most of this sort of stuff by quite simply entirely
    ignoring SOS
    If i could say to Rab McKinnler the NATO arguement is for another day – a day in which as an independent country we actually can make decisions on it, but the notion that the elements that comprise NATO would be anything other than courteous and respectful to a nation which controlled a huge swathe of the North Atlantic is absurd.

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  11. Accepting without prejudice that there has indeed been the silence from the SNP membership and support that you assert, why might that be? You suggest that the alleged lack of comment is indicative of “unease”. Might it not just as well be a sign of ennui? The Scotland on Sunday article to which you refer is, after all, only one more in the constant stream of negative, scaremongering stories spewed out by the mainstream media. Is it exceptional in a way that might provoke a significant response?

    And what of Malcolm Chalmers’ report? Does it have anything new or interesting to say? It seems to me that, taken as a whole, it is no different from various other assessments from a more or less pro-union perspective. I find nothing in it that bids me take to the keyboard to compose a rebuttal. In essence, all the report tells us is that, in relation to defence as all else, independence inevitably opens up a range of options. The anti-independence camp seek to portray these options in a negative way, of course. The unionist media spin choice and flexibility as confusion and indecision. What’s new?

    As a nationalist I am no longer discomfited by the stultifying negativity of the British nationalists nor the blatant partiality – and not infrequent dishonesty – of the media. I do not feel the need to churn out a response to every gobbet of disinformation and denigration. Life’s too short!

    This does not imply complacency regarding the unquestionably very important issues such as defence. Still less should the fact that I opt not to react to a particular story be taken as indicating some sort of sycophantic reluctance to criticise the SNP and its policies if I feel such criticism is justified. The only comment I felt moved to make on the matter in question was a Tweet to the effect that I was generally in agreement with Robin McAlpine’s article and thought it important that the SNP put down some very clear markers on the issue of NATO membership and nuclear weapons. I am confident that they will do so in due course.

    I am relaxed about all of this because I note the one thing that is missing from these reports, reports of reports and the comments of such as Jim Murphy. What is missing is their explanation as to why Scotland must inevitably be less capable than other nations. And if it is to have any hope of persuading me, that explanation better be bloody good.

    • Yep but you are not of the group requiring to be persuaded of the merits of a yes vote. And if all the don’t knows have to go on is the front page of the Scotland on Sunday – which is much less scaremongering than usual and of other stories of this ilk (which is not saying much I know) and not the other point of view or a different opinion, then people are only getting one side of the debate from which to make up their minds.

      There is an arrogance in your assertion that we, as true believers, can pat away such tiresome flotsam and jetsam. And ignore it. When this debate is so not about us. Actually.

      • I speak for no “we”. The clue is in my judicious use of the first person singular pronoun.

        And I have more faith in the people than you apparently do. It is too often supposed that folk know no more than what they are told by the media. While the anti-independence campaign likes to pretend that the SNP has never addressed issues such as defence not everybody is unaware of the many policy statements the party has made on the subject.

        But the SNP cannot be expected to chase every kite the anti-independence campaign flies. If for no other reason than that every denial, correction and clarification will also be subject to media spin. Sometimes it’s better just to let them go rather than give substance.

    • Excellent as always Peter.

  12. Scotland should absolutly not be a member of the North Atlantic TREATY Organisation as it is a military alliance unlike the United Nations which is a peacekeeping role. Check the record of France’s membership of NATO. For many years France was outwith NATO.
    An Independent Scotland would have the soverign right to get rid of Nuclear subs not only the active fleet but the rotting hulks in Rosyth. The only reason Westminster want to keep the nuclear fleet is to keep “Great” Britains permanent seat at the United Nations, having been a “world power” is difficult to come to terms with.
    By the way are the public of the UK aware that if any country in NATO becomes involved in a war, then we go with them as part of the treaty and a further thought; as a small very vulnerable island requiring only half a dozen nuclear warheads to wipe us out, who are we going to fire ours at? Oh! and we must have the yes from good old USA.
    As far as I am concerned the sooner we are out of all of this the better.

    • It makes no difference to your argument but if you repeat it often enough then sooner or later someone is going to point out that France never did leave NATO. So I might as well do it now. And anyway, De Gaulle left NATO’s peacetime military command structure and asked the Americans to leave (most of) their bases in France because he believed these things damaged France’s standing as a world power. Not at all similar cases then, so adding France to your argument just confuses things.

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