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.