Nato membership for an independent Scotland? The SNP’s nuclear headache
Coverage of the SNP’s conference in Perth suggests it has been a masterpiece of political choreography. The SNP has made the most of the opportunity not to just to mark the start of the build-up to the referendum campaign, but to emphasise how “different” – more inclusive, more democratic, better run – an independent Scotland would be.
Alex Salmond’s speech suggested a positive embrace of the “excluded-middle” strategy that the unionist parties have pursued, only allowing a single yes or no question on independence, and no option for enhanced devolution. If you don’t want to be run by Etonian snobs set on dismantling the NHS or politicising policing, was his message, vote for independence. Following the Edinburgh agreement last Monday, it marks a serious media blitz to make the case for Scottish independence.
The most important actual decision at Perth, though, concerned whether an independent Scotland should join Nato. For the party leadership, it is part of showing how the SNP is a pragmatic party, keen to engage with a wider world – and thereby to reduce perceived risk factors linked with independence. Nato membership would indicate to the international community that Scottish independence would not introduce a destabilising or neutralist power into the heart of Nato territory, but that on key security matters there would be a continuity.
It would also show unconvinced Scottish voters that an independent Scotland would continue to be part of a world they know, and could rely on external guarantees for its own security. All that is part of a strategy concerned with emphasising the many and plural unions that an independent Scotland would form part of, most of which would include remainder-UK as well.
That view is evidently not shared by many SNP activists. Many are strongly opposed to Nato and to nuclear weapons, and hold a vision of a neutral (and largely disarmed) Scotland – more like Sweden or Finland than Norway or the Netherlands. At best, this is a “head versus heart” issue, with any practical case for Nato set against idealised visions of what an independent Scotland should be. Nuclear weapons are key here. Salmond’s declaration that an independent Scotland would formally outlaw nuclear weapons, made on the Andy Marr show on Sunday morning (and a looming resolution to similar effect at the party’s national council) illustrates the disquiet this issue can cause. A large swath of Scottish opinion, in the middle ground that aspires to greater self-government and which is up for grabs in the referendum campaign, is also strongly opposed to nuclear weapons.
While opposing nuclear weapons, Angus Robertson MP, the SNP’s referendum strategist and defence spokesman, clearly thinks Nato membership is a vote-winner. Nato membership and mutual defence guarantees would necessarily mean sheltering under a US-UK-French nuclear umbrella, though, even if no nuclear weapons were actually stationed on Scottish soil. Nato membership therefore suggests an unavoidable engagement with a nuclear weapons defence. However, a deal for weapon stationing would be a likely demand as part of Nato membership negotiations. In effect, the SNP is trying to have it both ways. But that policy may end up more likely to lose yes votes at the referendum than to win them, if thanks to Nato membership an independent Scotland would remain reliant on nuclear weapons and substantially tied to US military policy. Independence may be much less attractive for key swing voters if it ends up making no difference on a vital issue.
The problem is that of all the issues to be resolved after a referendum, the UK’s nuclear bases on the Clyde are the most important. It is the strongest card an SNP government would have in independence negotiations – the one thing the UK government would badly want that Scotland has. The narrow vote at Perth, by fewer than 30 of the 759 votes cast, suggests that the SNP’s leadership have little room for manoeuvre on that, even if they wanted it. The Perth vote shows just how divisive the nuclear question may yet be for the SNP.