Monday 6 August 2012

Scotland & NATO: The real debate III

Scotland and NATO - SNP policy
In a previous article (Scotland & NATO: The real debate II) I dismissed the rather quaint notion that the process of determining SNP policy should opened up to people and groups outwith the party. I also sought to emphasise the distinction between SNP policy and the position of the nation of Scotland after independence. It is essential that people make this distinction. A vote for independence in 2014 is not a vote for any particular policy on any given issue. It is solely and exclusively a vote to determine the will of the people of Scotland regarding the constitutional status of Scotland. This is sufficiently important that the anti-independence parties and their friends in the media put a lot of effort into blurring the distinction. They seek to conflate the SNP and the cause of independence simply because it is easier to attack politicians and policies than it is to denigrate a perfectly natural and entirely worthy aspiration.

So, stipulating that we are discussing SNP policy on NATO membership and not what will pertain post-independence, what might we say about the proposals put forward by Angus Robertson for discussion at the party conference in October? How should discussion among party members prior to the debate proceed? What sort of things should they be considering? As a starting point, I would suggest three questions which, I feel, get to the heart of the issue. But first we should be clear about what is actually being proposed - as opposed to what might be gleaned from the unionist media which is obsessed with such pejorative language as "U-turn". The relevant passage from the text of the motion is as follows,
Security cooperation in our region functions primarily through NATO, which is regarded as the keystone defence organisation by Denmark, Norway, Iceland and the United Kingdom. The SNP wishes Scotland to fulfil its responsibilities to neighbours and allies. On independence Scotland will inherit its treaty obligations with NATO. An SNP Government will maintain NATO membership subject to an agreement that Scotland will not host nuclear weapons and NATO continues to respect the right of members to only take part in UN sanctioned operations. In the absence of such an agreement, Scotland will work with NATO as a member of the Partnership for Peace programme like Sweden, Finland, Austria and Ireland. Scotland will be a full member of the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) of the European Union and the Organisation for Cooperation and Security in Europe (OSCE).

Points to note include the unequivocal reiteration of the commitment to a nuclear-free Scotland  - the only modification being an acknowledgement (in the preceding paragraph) that removal of the British state's stockpiles of WMD cannot possibly be achieved overnight and that the best that we can realistically hope for is "the speediest safe transition of the nuclear fleet from Faslane".

In relation to NATO, we should note that this is proposed as policy if there is an SNP government. Which means, at the very least, that the people of Scotland would have the opportunity to reject this policy at the first post-independence election. It is not the inevitable consequence of a YES vote in the independence referendum that some would have you believe it is.

Note too that the proposal places conditions on Scotland's continuing membership of NATO. Whatever others may say, these are significant conditions. Indeed, the very fact that conditions can be stipulated is significant as an indicator of Scotland's strong negotiating position. The SNP envisage us being able to demand respect for our non-nuclear status and the recognition of the UN as the ultimate authority in sanctioning operations.

Finally, there is what may be termed the fall-back position should agreement on terms of membership not prove possible. Basically, this simply reverts to existing SNP policy. The importance of this is that it reinforces the non-negotiable nature of the conditions being demanded by making it clear that there is an alternative way for Scotland to go.

And so we come to the three questions SNP members should be asking about this policy proposal. (There are only three because I start from the assumption that the policy is feasible.)

  • Is it a sensible policy for the SNP?
  • Is it an acceptable policy for Scotland?
  • Regardless of the forgoing, is there some overriding consideration?

Let's deal with them one at a time.

Is it a sensible policy for the SNP?

Every party must consider its electability. In addition, it must consider the internal health of the party - the relationships among members; relationships between factions within the party; and the relationship between members and the party leadership. So party members must consider how the policy will go down with voters and how adoption of the policy will affect the internal dynamics of the party. At the extremes, there is no point in adopting a policy that will relegate the party to the electoral wilderness, while there is equally no point in adopting a very popular policy which, nonetheless, runs counter to some fundamental principle and results in the fragmentation of the party. There is, of course, a lot of territory in between.

Is it an acceptable policy for Scotland?

Some may think that this is no different from consideration of whether a policy makes a party more or less electable. But there is a very important difference. While impact on appeal to the electorate may be said to be "selfish" in that it prioritises the party's fortunes, the issue of acceptability goes to much wider and deeper concerns about the nature and character of the nation. It is entirely possible to adopt short-term, populist policies which win votes but which have unfortunate consequences for the way the nation is perceived and the way it perceives itself. The issue of acceptability acknowledges that there is a moral dimension to policy which supersedes partisan advantage.

Regardless of the foregoing, is there some overriding consideration?

Somebody once said that politics is the art of the possible. In politics, as in life, we sometimes have to grit our teeth and accept that the ideal may be unattainable. That we must accept something less than we would wish for Or that the only choices available to us are between equally undesirable options. The temptation in such circumstances is to procrastinate. To put off any decision as long as possible. The is rarely helpful. If there is some factor which makes a certain choice inevitable, then it is genuinely better to face up to that fact and deal with it.

Of course, there are no easy answers to the questions. There is no algorithm that will spit out a "correct" solution when fed the appropriate inputs. But the questions may serve a purpose in focussing the mind as well as helping to define the terms of the debate. In the end, there will still be divided opinion. But there may be greater understanding of and respect for opposing views if there is mutual understanding of and respect for the process by which those positions were reached.

In Scotland & NATO: The real debate IV I hope to explain where my own reflections on these questions have led me.

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  1. Peter, you have hit the nail on the head when you state that decisions on issues such as NATO will be decided by the Scottish people at the ballot box. That is what sovereignty is: the ability to choose. This is what the YES camp need to major on relentlessly over the coming 2 years.
    For the SNP, which is the motor behind the YES campaign, the issue surely is predicated upon the actions most likely to deliver that YES vote & thereby repatriate Scotland's sovereignty. That being the case, I take the view that the SNP would be crazy to give the Unionists an open goal on the NATO issue as it allows London to conjour up images of a friendless, abandoned Scotland in a dangerous world. Adopting Angus Robertson's resolution shoots the Unionist NATO fox dead in its tracks.
    It will also give our independence negotiating team a strong hand negotiating within the NATO alliance rather than facing the possible hostility of the US & European allies.
    By recognising the existing reality of Scotland already in NATO, the SNP will be demonstrating to the Scottish people a grown up & mature governance, providing continuity and reassurance, which will result in greater numbers of folk putting their cross in the YES box & giving us - the people - to decide for ourselves Scotland's foreign policy.

    1. Thanks for the comment. I am going to resist the temptation to get too involved in responding until after I have published the final part of this series. But I would point out that it is no longer accurate to represent the SNP as ONLY the party of the independence campaign. It is also the party of government and a player in the party political system.

      The roles of campaign organisation and political party are not entirely compatible. For example, we can hardly expect the SNP to go around stressing the fact that they might not be elected to government after independence. So we can expect that the "motor" driving the YES campaign will increasingly come to be the umbrella group of Yes Scotland. This will allow a wider range of post-independence policy options to be explored and explained to the electorate without compromising either the YES campaign or any political party.

  2. Point taken on the various parties & civic organizations supporting the YES campaign Peter.
    However, for most folk, the SNP is 'Independence', and accordingly will look to the SNP for policies & a lead on how the new sovereign Scotland will look. Which takes me back to my initial point that the Scottish Government has a duty to ensure that potential roadblocks to securing an affirmative in the referendum are removed - and removing ourselves from NATO is in my book a massive negative for the pro Scotland side - which is why Angus's resolution is so important.
    As you say, it is really important that the wider YES campaign stresses the right to decide post a successful 2014 referendum.
    And, equally important, that all, regardless of passions on this issue, keep in mind the ultimate prize & keep this debate well tempered and a credit to the YES side. Scotland is watching.

  3. TartanSeer, I agree absolutely. I was about to say something very similar but you formulate my thoughts precisely :)