The talk of the steamie at this year’s conference is, of course, that NATO resolution. Though, to be more accurate, it’s a resolution updating SNP defence policy and sadly, sections 1) to 12) of the resolution have been rather overshadowed by the contentious section 13 which purports to change existing party policy that an independent Scotland would remove itself from NATO membership.
The new policy would be that an independent Scotland would not only inherit its treat obligations with NATO and would maintain NATO membership, subject to an agreement that Scotland would not host nuclear weapons. This has subsequently been shored up by the First Minister and others that an independent Scotland would create a clause in its constitution that declares Scotland to be a non-nuclear power.
All this reassurance has been needed because for many, the removal of nuclear weapons from Scottish soil and creating a non-nuclear independent Scotland is a red line issue. Indeed, it’s the reason many have joined the SNP.
Passions have been running high on both sides and while “the leadership” is quietly confident of carrying the day, the fact that the First Minister was out in force in last weekend’s newspapers stating why he is supporting the resolution suggests a nervousness. Or at least a need to show that this change in policy really does have the leadership’s backing and to encourage the party to follow suit.
But that move in itself has inflamed opinion and hardened the opposition’s view. Last night, there was a rash of fringe meetings with the protagonists setting out their stall for and against. And in the bars, into the wee small hours, the chat was dominated by the issue.
What’s my call? That the leadership probably will carry the day but that it will be close. And this morning, I’ve been gathering views to show the range of opinion on the matter. Never mind me, here’s what the delegates think:
Cllr Mhairi Hunter has been mandated by her Glasgow branch to vote for amendments a) and c) in the debate ie vote against the resolution. Why? “Members of our branch feel strongly that NATO has shifted in recent years from being a defensive to an offensive alliance. They do not see it as in Scotland’s interests to be in that alliance.”
She’s not the only delegate mandated to vote. I spoke to four stalwarts from Alyth and District branch – including one delegate who began supporting the SNP in 1946 – who are all mandated to vote for the resolution. The rationale? “It’s better to be in than out – which doesn’t mean to say we have to use it, but we need a defence mechanism. We need the umbrella support of other countries. We need to forge relationships with other countries.” They were keen to affirm their non-nuclear stance and also pointed out that if the referendum is won, it won’t necessarily be the SNP forming the government post-independence. The point being that they were quite relaxed about the policy shift.
Not everyone is mandated, though. Richard Bell, a delegate from one of the Glasgow constituencies, is one such and he’ll be voting to maintain current party policy. “I don’t believe in NATO and I don’t believe the party or indeed, Scotland would be able to be in NATO and maintain our non-nuclear status.” Which sums up the view of many voting against, or rather for amendments a) and c).
Diane Alexander, a delegate from Bonnyrigg, is another voting against. “I believe we’ve used nuclear weapons as a veil for peace but if you look around the world, there are wars everywhere and little sign of peace. Nuclear weapons are not doing what they claim. We need new solutions and the only those solutions can work is through a commitment to peace, by resolving our issues with other countries through the Partnership for Peace.”
Angus Robertson MP, the architect of the defence resolution, might have some issue with the factual inaccuracies behind some people’s reasoning. But it’s clear that for some this is not a “minds” issue, but a “hearts” one. That’s not true of all, and Angus will be pleased to have made at least one convert following his Scotland on Sunday lecture last night.
Matthew Leitch, a delegate from Paisley burgh branch, had bravely resisted all attempts from his fellow members to switch tack and support a resolution. Until last night.
“I was impressed with Angus’s presentation. He clearly has done a lot of research and that matters. I can see the benefits now and having been positively against the shift in policy, I will now be voting for it today.”
It’s not just branch and constituency delegates who have a vote. MPs and MSPs have a vote too in their own right. And given that amendment c) is supported by a number of MSPs, it is clear that they are as divided as everyone else on the issue.
Dennis Robertson, MSP for Aberdeenshire West, has taken a while to make up his mind. “I’ve taken on board all that has been said. I was concerned about this issue of NATO membership potentially allowing other NATO members the right to bring vessels carrying nuclear weapons into Scottish waters. But I’m satisfied with the answers Angus gave. And I thought Nicola Sturgeon did a sterling job on radio this morning and listened carefully to what she had to say. That’s why today I’ll be voting for the resolution.”
Stewart Hosie, MP for Dundee East, is another supporter. “We need to be good international citizens. I joined the party because of its anti-nuclear stance and I am adamant that nuclear is a red line issue. For me, NATO membership has always been somewhat tangential to that. But I’m comfortable that we can maintain the anti-nuclear stance while playing a full role in NATO, as most other NATO members do.”
And that kinda sums it up. Strong opinions on both sides; some mandated, some not; some with entrenched views, others making their minds up at the last. Here’s to the excellent debate this afternoon.