I was invited to attend the SNP conference on Friday in Perth as SSP national spokesman and member of the Yes Scotland Advisory Board to watch the party debate its attitude to NATO membership for an Independent Scotland. And I would like to thank the SNP for the welcome and the courtesy they extended to me throughout.
For anyone interested in politics it was an outstanding debate, which I feel sure, will be talked about for years to come. The atmosphere inside the Perth conference centre was heady and the debate produced a cocktail of fine speeches and high drama displaying principles, tactical arguments and even the odd insult all delivered with passion and guile. The audience played its part with partisan cheering, standing ovations and even booing at times. Although I obviously do not share the conclusion reached the debate was a credit both to the SNP itself and to politics as a whole. It was a master class in rational discourse showing once again why politics is so invigorating and important to the civic life of our nation.
Moving the motion to abandon the existing SNP policy of withdrawing Scotland from NATO Defence spokesman Angus Robertson MP was keen to re-iterate the SNP's anti-nuclear commitment. But, he argued, the existing policy was in need of review and that after speaking to 'Scotland’s neighbours' in Iceland, Denmark and Norway he felt the existing policy let them down. His main argument centred on a poll commissioned by the party which apparently showed 75% of Scots wanted to remain in Nato fearing Scotland’s security was otherwise threatened. He claimed this was 'powerful evidence’ the SNP needed to change policy otherwise it would lose the 2014 Independence Referendum. He insisted that an Independent Scotland would make removal of Trident nuclear weapons on the Clyde a precondition for joining NATO.
Seconding the motion Angus McNeil MP insisted that 'Scotland in NATO is good defence'. He also cited the 75% poll mentioned by Angus Robertson and felt 'our neighbours in Iceland, Norway and Denmark' wanted this change and he concluded that demanding the removal of Trident was no impediment to NATO membership.
Opposing the motion Bill Ramsay from Glasgow moved an amendment which argued NATO membership put an Independent Scotland under pressure to accept Trident and to cheers he proclaimed 'Lets consider NATO membership only when the last Trident submarine sails away down the Clyde'. His seconder John Finnie asked who Scotland was at risk from? He argued that the leaderships motion means 'you will never get rid of Trident'.
Brian Stewart from Aberdeen moved an amendment supportive of the motion and asked conference to 'Give NATO a chance to accept our nuclear free policy between 2014 [and a successful referendum outcome] and 2016 [the first Scottish General Election thereafter]'
Jamie Hepburn MSP moved another amendment rejecting the motion and insisted joining NATO made getting rid of Trident 'impossible' and cited the experience of the German people who were compelled to accept US nuclear missiles stationed on their soil by its NATO membership. He insisted there was no morality in the motion, that NATO was not a force for peace in the world, and asked why the movers did not mention the views of other neighbours such as Ireland or Sweden who were not members of NATO.
In asking for the motion to be remitted Rob Gibson MSP asked for proof that being in NATO gives Scotland greater leverage in getting rid of Trident. It’s the reverse he insisted and he called for the motion to be remitted to allow further debate over the issues involved.
In the open debate Keith Brown MSP, a former marine, argued that the best way to get rid of nuclear weapons on the Clyde was to stay within NATO. He suggested that there was 'No chance of getting rid of Trident without Independence and there was no chance of securing Independence without staying within NATO’. This motion he insisted helps secure Independence.
John Swinney MSP said 'we have a responsibility under Independence to be good and responsible citizens and a responsibility to fully defend our country and its citizens and to work with our neighbours in Iceland, Norway and Denmark [again] in a common alliance. He concluded that 'we can only get rid of nuclear weapons by passing this motion.'
Delegate Duncan Ross pointed out how the Labour Party had been castigated for abandoning its principles and now SNP was ditching 'our principles'. 'It is dishonest' he insisted to warm applause 'to say we can join NATO and get rid of nuclear weapons.'
Next Dillon Johnston from Aberdeenshire argued that if the motion helped secure Independence then conference must support it.
Speaking next Sandra White MSP received the widest applause of the day so far when she asked 'why are we having this debate now?' Scotland was on the verge of Independence she insisted and suggested that the Scottish people should decide themselves whether they wanted to be in NATO after 2014. She accused the movers of 'hypocrisy' and argued that NATO is a nuclear alliance with a first strike policy and Scotland would not be able to change that. She ridiculed the 75% support poll saying it was bogus and asked for the evidence; the question asked and the breakdown of its result, suggesting since this was not forthcoming the polls should be disregarded as unreliable evidence. To loud applause she finished by claiming the 'grassroots of the SNP don’t want to be in NATO'.
Then in the contribution of the day without question Justice Secretary Kenny McAskill MSP rose with a bravura performance. Beginning with the acclamation that 'I aint no US poster boy!' to cheers and stamping of the feet adding 'Nobody in this hall today is pro-Trident. The question is how do we get rid of it?'. The answer, insisted the former anti-poll tax rebel, was 'via NATO membership!' [to widespread, if partisan, cheering]. 'Winning in 2014 is our be all and end all' he insisted,’ this policy helps us win.' He then argued that 'Nato has changed and moved on'. And finished by proclaiming 'We are a party of power and not protest. The people of Scotland seek security and we need to allay their fears. NATO membership does that. We will not be standing shoulder to shoulder with our neighbours in the Rest of the UK, Poland, and Spain etc if we do not join NATO. I'm tired of marching. I want a seat at the table of power for an Independent Scotland!' His speech was roared to the rafters and received by far the biggest ovation [albeit very partisan] of the entire debate.
Christine McKelvey had the unenviable job of following McAskill but feared this motion would make Scotland a paler version of the UK.
Natalie McGarry then spoke to oppose the motion and argued that NATO were warmongers the SNP should not touch with a bargepole attacking the motion as 'dishonest and wrong' and asked 'where is the evidence we can force NATO to do anything?'
Bruce Crawford MSP said we have 2 years to the Referendum and a huge responsibility to win it insisting that the motion was needed otherwise the Referendum would be lost.
Lachie McNeill from Argyll said there was no need to change existing policy arguing that the motion undermined SNP's commitment to unilateral nuclear disarmament.
Replying to the debate Bill Ramsay quipped that NATO's charm offensive had worked wonders on the SNP leadership and insisted that a nuclear 1st strike capability was 'hard wired in to NATO'. Scotland, he said, would be compelled to accept Trident and to suggest otherwise was nonsense. The movers might as well ask the Labour Party to support Independence'
Brian Stewart from Aberdeen insisted that motion said 'we will only join NATO if they agree to get rid of Trident.' And insisted that Scotland, with others, can reform NATO.
Jamie Hepburn ridiculed the idea of Scotland reforming NATO, as it was in effect a US organisation.
Summing up Angus Robertson MP accused conference itself of hypocrisy [to some booing] and re-iterated his claim that an Independent Scotland will not join NATO unless they agree to get rid of Trident. He ended by starkly warning that 'As Campaign Director of the SNP he had led the party to 2 election victories in 2007 and 2011 and I tell you we cannot win a Yes vote in 2014 without this policy change!' [This met with loud booing] 'This vote, he added, is about carrying the country and we need to carry the country to get a Yes vote in 2014. 75% of people believe Scotland should be part of NATO and the diplomatic community and our neighbours want it too....' and ran out of time.
My immediate impression was that this was an utterly engrossing debate, a fabulous piece of political theatre. It was clear the vote was on a knife-edge with no one sure which way it would go.
The Chairman’s call for a show of hands was visually inconclusive and after 45 minutes of tense waiting and counting later the crucial vote was revealed - 394 for the leadership’s position and 365 against. The leadership had prevailed by just 29 votes out of 800 delegates!
In the immediate aftermath some people tore up their party cards in disgust claiming they no longer wanted to be part of a pro-NATO party.
Their despair was of course understandable. In another move to the right the SNP had just abandoned a principled opposition to NATO and opted to join the warmongers. SNP leaders have been courted by NATO diplomacy and have in turn been too amenable to ludicrous arguments that they can persuade the US to give up its nuclear weapons. It is just not credible. And for me this change in SNP policy will not protect their commitment to shelving Trident but undermine it. Moreover the move does not improve the chances of winning the 2014 Referendum it jeopardises it.
The Scottish Socialist Party is to say the least not convinced that the SNP's 'steady as she goes' approach to Independence will be successful. Victory in the 2014 Referendum will as far as we are concerned be secured instead by stressing the transformative attractions of Independence - no more Trident missiles, no more imperialist wars where Scottish soldiers die for oil or other imperialist interests, no more cuts to lifeline public services to pay for wars abroad, no more of the worse economic recession in 80 years, no more fuel poverty in Scotland, no more neo-liberal economic policies of privatisation and financialisation of our society. We can persuade Scotland’s working class majority their best interests will be served by supporting Independence but that means inspiring them with a vision of change and improvement.
The SSP's position on NATO has not changed. Nothing in Perth these last few days has persuaded us our policy needs 'reviewing'. We opposed sending Scottish troops to invade Iraq and occupy Afghanistan to die under NATO's banner. We did not support NATO's illegal 'regime change' campaign in Libya nor do we support its threatened intervention in Syria. But most of all we do not accept that Scotland inside NATO will ever persuade the warmongers to remove Trident from our shores.
The Scottish Socialist Party remains committed to an Independent socialist Scotland that is not in NATO, not beholden to the Bank of England or the IMF, not a tax haven for corporations or billionaires and not governed by an unelected and unaccountable monarchy. And I suggest our vision is less and less likely to be mistaken for that offered by the ever-rightward moving SNP.