Well, we’re still a bit out of breath. The SNP conference debate on NATO membership was an incredible, grab-you-by-the-throat piece of political theatre, with the outcome in doubt all the way to the end. Social media was all but unanimous in its praise of the debate, with even some Labour MPs clearly a bit wistful for the Kinnock-era days when their own gatherings used to have this sort of proper democratic ding-dong instead of just stage-managed rallies.
The leadership carried the day in the end, with Angus Robertson’s motion for a wide-ranging “update” of the party’s old defence policy passed more or less unaltered. We had absolutely no position before the debate so watched it with a completely open mind, and purely on the strength of arguments the right side won.
The “no to NATO” side came out with a procession of incredibly impassioned speeches (several seemed close to tears), but offered little other than emotion. The pro-NATO camp, on the other hand, didn’t make a very persuasive case for change, and seemed to be losing the crowd until a superb, tub-thumping address from Kenny MacAskill driving home the point that you don’t change anything with protest marches.
The mood in the hall still appeared to this observer to hang in the balance, with a very strong contribution from Alyn Smith MEP backing MacAskill up but more heartfelt pleas from opponents drawing great acclaim from the audience. The real killer blow, though, came in a closing speech from Angus Robertson, the proposer of the motion.
Reminding the conference that he’d been in charge of the SNP’s two historic Holyrood victories, he led them onto the sucker punch – that even in the 2011 landslide they’d only secured 44% of the vote, and 44% wasn’t enough to win a referendum. It was a devastating point, and while some boos rang around the hall when he delivered the line they were in truth the sound of a painful and anguished party coming to terms with the fact that he was inescapably, crushingly right.
The votes, when they came, were all agonisingly close, requiring three cliffhanger card counts that took 10-15 minutes each. The first was carried by a margin of just 29, though the gap grew with each subsequent division until the key vote on the main proposal was won by almost 100 in an electorate of around 700.
But what of the actual policy? What does it all mean? Here are the bullet points, so to speak, that leap out at us.
1. Increased defence spending in an SNP-governed independent Scotland
The most dismaying aspect from this site’s perspective is the commitment that an independent SNP government will spend £2.5bn a year on defence – an extra £500m compared to previous policy. The very same day that we pointed out how much money independence could save on defence spending for better use elsewhere, the SNP made us look a bit chumpy by saying it’d actually keep spending much of that money on the military.
The £2.5bn figure is still around £800m a year less than is spent “on Scotland’s behalf” by the UK on defence now, so it would still leave a big chunk of extra cash in the Scottish Government budget post-independence, but it seems excessive to us when Scotland is compared to similar small nations.
On the other hand, we can see that setting up a Scottish Defence Force from scratch could involve a higher outlay in the initial years, and we can only hope that the sum would be reduced later. Plus, if we have to build ourselves some warships, that’s at least good news for a lot of jobs in Rosyth. But we’d still rather have seen the amendment challenging the increased budget succeed.
2. NATO membership is still conditional on removal of Trident.
This is absolutely key. The weakest argument deployed by several anti-NATO speakers was that there was no guarantee NATO would allow Scotland to be a member if it insisted on getting rid of the nuclear subs. But the motion was absolutely unequivocal – if NATO won’t allow Scotland to be nuclear-free, we don’t join. Indeed, in many ways that’d be the ideal outcome.
(The second-weakest argument, incidentally, was that staying in NATO would prevent Scotland from leading the entire globe to multilateral disarmament. With the best will in the world, the notion that what Scotland does could ever have even the tiniest impact on the nuclear policies of the USA, Russia or China is delusional tree-hugging insanity of the absurdest order.)
3. The Scottish public wants to stay in NATO.
The oft-quoted stat from opinion polling is that 75% of Scots are opposed to leaving NATO, with just 11% in favour. That’s an awful lot of people to be in conflict with if you want to win a majority vote in a referendum. Numerous speakers essentially put forward the argument that it’s better to be powerless and hang onto your principles than compromise in order to win. We don’t agree.
Scotland simply can’t afford to stay in the Union under the crushing neo-right consensus of the Tories and Labour for even one more Parliamentary term. The consequences for social justice would be catastrophic, and frankly that’s far more important to us than the ultimately fairly trivial issue of whether we stay in NATO or not. There isn’t going to be a nuclear war, so NATO’s position on a first-strike policy won’t ever actually make any difference to anyone’s life. Tory and Labour plans to eviscerate the welfare state will.
4. If you’re underneath a bomb, you don’t much care what kind it is.
This is something that’s puzzled us for decades, frankly. We really don’t get the hysterical opposition to nuclear weapons as opposed to other kinds of weapons. Go and ask the people of Tokyo or Dresden if they’re relieved that they got attacked with nice cuddly “conventional” weapons instead of nukes.
Wings Over Scotland is opposed to nuclear weapons because they’re pointless, expensive and dangerous even when not being fired at anyone. They didn’t stop Argentina invading the Falklands or Iraq invading Kuwait, because in both cases the aggressor knew they could never be used. They haven’t stopped any of the scores of wars that have beset the world since 1945, nor any terrorist atrocities. They’re self-evidently NOT a deterrent, and if they’re not a deterrent then they’re no good for anything.
(There was a case to be argued for them during the Cold War, but the Cold War was over 20 years ago and it’s not coming back.)
But nuclear weapons are no more “evil” than other forms of weapon. There’s no “hypocrisy” in being in NATO just because it has nuclear missiles in its armoury, if you’re prepared to have a military at all (or be in any other kind of military alliance). Indeed, the hypocrisy is in apparently believing that it’s okay to kill someone with high explosives just as long as they’re not atomic ones.
The notion raised by several delegates, then, that it’s somehow immoral to take advantage of NATO’s “nuclear umbrella” while not being prepared to have our own nukes is nonsensical. All bombs are designed to kill people. And is it “immoral” to call on the police or fire brigade if you’re not prepared to do their jobs yourself? Of course not.
So that’s our view on all that. Some of you will very probably disagree strongly with it, and that’s fine because we only just arrived at it ourselves. We’re acutely aware of the danger of sacrificing principles for electoral pragmatism, because we’ve seen it destroy the Labour Party over the last 15 years, but as we hope we’ve shown above, NATO membership just isn’t that big a principle.
The bottom line is that 75% is an awfully large tide to swim against. Changing NATO policy is highly unlikely to lose us the referendum, and a lot more likely to help us win it. Get a Yes safely in the bag in 2014 and we can have the debate for the 2016 election. If some people abandon the SNP over NATO and vote in a few more Green MSPs instead, that’s just peachy by us. A few more Green MSPs is no bad thing.
But let’s, if you’ll forgive the tactless metaphor, win the war before we start squabbling over how to divvy up the booty. To vote No over the SNP’s policy on NATO wouldn’t just be cutting your nose off to spite your face, it’d be hacking off a couple of major limbs and poking at least one of your eyes out too. (Not least because if there’s a No vote, we’ll still be in NATO and we’ll still have nukes. Lose-lose.)
And if there’s only one thing that we know for certain about the coming years, it’s that you don’t want to be disabled under the Union.