As the SNP gather for the start today of their annual conference in Perth, the party’s “good news” – which saw Alex Salmond and David Cameron finally sign off on the outline for an independence referendum - looks set to be overshadowed by a bitter row over the party’s position on NATO membership.
On Friday, the conference will be asked to approve a motion, tabled by the party’s Westminster leader and defence spokesman Angus Robertson MP, and Angus MacNeil MP, which would ditch 30 years of policy by accepting an independent Scotland should be a member of NATO whilst maintaining the party’s opposition to nuclear weapons.
Declaring such a policy was crucial to being able to win the vote on independence, Robertson declared:
“It is in Scotland’s national interest, as well as our foreign and defence policy interest to remain within Nato, as a member that does not host nuclear weapons.
“It is important for the Scottish public to have confidence that an SNP-led independent Scotland will have the appropriate defence and national security priorities.
“It is also essential for our neighbours and allies to understand we will live up to our mutual defence and co-operation commitments and we will be a trusted and valued full partner.”
His statement, however, has not been enough to stave off a wave of criticism from members of his own party who one by one have attacked the party leadership for putting politics ahead of principle.
Writing in The Scotsman this morning, for example, Marco Biagi, SNP MSP for Edinburgh Central, urged party members to:
“…be cautious of the flimsy argument that changing positions to back an independent Scotland’s NATO membership would make a 2014 Yes vote more likely.”
Outlining his concerns, he continued:
“SNP defence spokesman Angus Robertson is pursuing this change because he considers NATO membership the best way forward for Scotland. While I do accept some of his arguments, we fundamentally disagree. I believe that we should seek protection through alliances that provide collective security by means other than the threat of the use of nuclear weapons, which underpins all Nato doctrine.
“As a member, Scotland would be a lone voice for reform in an organisation whose nuclearised stance holds consensus and has persisted long after the end of the Cold War. We must do more than remove nuclear weapons from our own soil. Our objection as a country, rather than “Not in our back yard” should be “Not in our name”.
“These are disagreements of substance, yet more and more I see arguments in favour of Nato membership whose foundations are no more than the skittish whims of opinion polls. Every time a supporter of NATO membership argues for the abandonment of a long-held and principled policy solely by quoting an opinion poll, the political ghost of Tony Blair rises up and shakes them by the hand.
“Opinion polls should be barometers of success, not weather vanes that point you in whatever direction the wind is blowing.”
“The SNP has taken a position on NATO membership for 30 years now that is both moral and practical. Members must listen to the better angels of their nature. Throwing our consistency away based on any false whispered temptations of expediency would diminish the SNP and all that we have come together to stand for.”
The Scotsman, meanwhile, reports the party’s MSP for Central Scotland, John Wilson, will call for the decision to be put to a vote of all party members as, he argued, the “long-term credibility” of the SNP was now at stake over the matter; similarly, the paper notes Jamie Hepburn, MSP for Cumbernauld and Kilsyth, will formally propose a blocking amendment tomorrow, out of concern “about the impact Nato membership would have on our ability to remove nuclear weapons from Scottish territory”.
The developments come after a string of movers and shakers in the party criticised the plans for a u-turn on NATO membership.
In September, the party’s former deputy leader used the issue as a stick to beat what he dubbed a “totalitarian” leadership.
Writing for Holyrood magazine, Jim Sillars argued:
“Totalitarian would be a fair description of Scotland’s majority party.
“It is worth remembering that many MSPs were elected legally, not as outright SNP candidates, but “Alex Salmond for first minister” candidates, with all that means for who is the boss. That is the relationship that allows the leadership to instruct them to silence on a major issue, no matter that their constituents might like to know their views on NATO membership.”
In August, meanwhile, the head of the SNP’s youth movement, David Linden, declared “we most certainly cannot begin to waver in our opposition to nuclear”, whilst in a sign of the danger it could pose to the Yes Scotland movement, Scottish Greens, at their conference earlier this month, formally voted to support membership of the yes campaign on the condition it did not include support for NATO membership.
In July, the former Scottish Labour MP, defence secretary and NATO Secretary-General, Lord Robertson, warned an independent Scotland could not remain a part of the alliance whilst also objecting to nuclear weapons in the way the party leadership envisages.
Polling commissioned by the SNP and undertaken by YouGov in July found 75% of Scots believe an independent Scotland should stay in NATO.