The Scottish press are rather relishing the rammy that they expect to break out within the ranks of the SNP in the run-up to their main annual conference in Perth in October.
On some levels, they are right to do so: by the standards of any other major party, there will be a rammy. There will be letters in the press; there will be furious debates at branches; there will be apoplectic press releases; longtime friends will slam down fists on bars; furious e-mails will fly. To the SNP leadership, it will not be a pretty sight.
And, by the standards of most party conference, Perth Concert Hall will ring with far more rowdy passion than Labour, Tory, Lib-Dem or even the SNP itself have let loose in public for years. For they have become stage-managed events, designed much more for free publicity and fund-raising than to bring the faithful under one roof for the unseemly verbal bar brawl of debate.
Some would argue that in the dozen years of the Scottish Parliament—but most agree in the five years since the first SNP Government—the party has matured, has come of age. Not only have their many MSPs had to mind their p’s and q’s in a way that radicals with no hope of power never need bother with but the army of councillors, assistants, researchers, etc—mostly culled from the long-serving ranks of party members—have stepped up to those many jobs and displayed professionalism and restraint.
But this should not lead anyone to fall into the “thae politicians are a’ the same” trap. The Tory party backbone was built on tea dances at Conservative clubs in the fifties: it had its last boost under “I’m all right Jack” Thatcherites in the eighties. Labour was at its laudable best in the forties under Atlee and last dug in to defend its socialist principles in the fractious seventies. The Lib-Dem/Alliance bubble was more recent but based mostly on dislike for what the other two parties had on offer.
Seen over such a long perspective, every party has compromised on what was once seen as a fundamental policy that lay near its heart. But, just as the Tories came to embrace the NHS, so Labour embraced Trident; both would be called ‘U-turns” but both have become fundamental to the posture of each party. The most recent major shift was Blair’s shrewdly engineered dumping of Clause 4 in the mid-nineties.
The lack of much shift since in the UK parties has been due to tighter party management, combined with a new speed and breadth of reporting. If a candidate kicks a dog attacking him on an isolated farm in Galloway, it’s tweeted within the hour, gone virally global by nightfall and all over national front-pages with psychological/psephological analyses and an in-depth commentary on brutality from the RSPCA by next morning. The candidate’s career thereby comes at an untimely end. So everyone stays stiff and polite.
Not so the SNP. While the party has demonstrated considerable ability to run things well and a degree of tight-lipped discipline that has surprised even old hands like me, we have not yet had a ‘Clause 4 moment’ where a stark choice between continuing idealism in the wilderness or electability and prospect of subsequent power was presented to the faithful. Could the NATO question be that moment for the SNP?
Certainly some members see it as such. The SNP has a long, honourable—and among the four main parties unique—record on opposing nuclear weapons. Starting with Billy Wolfe’s leadership in the fifties. it attracted many CND adherents and adopted a posture hostile to nuclear in any form, including power. This led to a degree of idealism by the nineties where party policy was to shut down both Torness and Hunterston immediately on coming to power. As they had no alternative, this would have resulted in great swathes of Scotland without power.
Having had a half-century in the political wilderness, it is understandable that parties like the SNP allowed themselves radical ideals: the trickier part of implementing them—let alone explaining and justifying them to a majority of the public—need not be faced. This was ground onto which the principled and informed Foote led the UK Labour party under the banner of “The Longest Suicide Note in History” in 1983.
After a brief dawn in the seventies, the SNP experienced dark days equivalent to Labour’s in the eighties, right up to its climb since the late nineties. Those members from that era provide both the core of party activists and the source of most present elected members. They still harbour their ideals—as do I. For many of them, nuclear is still not acceptable in any form . NATO is a nuclear alliance. Therefore NATO is unacceptable.
However, at the Inverness conference in 1997, I seconded the East Lothian CA motion that we should continue to use nuclear power stations “to the end of their useful life”, thus eliminating the risk of immediate blackouts if the SNP came to power and did what they said on the tin. It passed. Add to this the fact that Scotland IS a member of NATO right now and DOES have “the obscenity of nuclear weapons” on its soil already (and has had for decades), idealists are already compromising on principles, just by living here.
More importantly, we are a decade and a half on from then and, even more importantly, a party of four times as many members. Those new members, while mostly not pro-nuclear, are also less scarred by the idealistic battles of the seventies and eighties, less weighed by the baggage of Cold War history and more concerned with national security in the 21st century then any throwback to evil empires and World War Three.
Modern defence involves alliances, especially for small countries, as Scotland will become. The stronger rule of international law and local alliances have been instrumental in turning the gunboat-wielding empire-building swashbuckling approach to other regimes (in which the UK led the way right up until the last century) into a fraternity of over 200 countries that—by and large—behave themselves.
We can’t change our geography. Like it or not, we are a country at the Northwest periphery of Europe with a maritime frontier that is a bit of a headache and plenty of resources that it would be worthwhile plundering (or at least disabling) if we were still back in the gunboat era. Despite little by way of land threat, Scotland would have more sea acreage than England to secure and have more in those acres in need of defence.
One option would be a standalone approach where we built many long-range-maritime-reconnaissance aircraft (like the UK scrapped), several frigates, many air-sea-rescue helicopters, many fast assault boats, developed our own Special Boat Squadron, built up a supporting air force of strike aircraft like the Typhoon or F-35, etc, etc and cocked a snook at everyone else.
Or…we could recognise that even the ‘No’ campaign had a point in arguing a ‘better together’ case and joined some umbrella organisation that found strength in numbers. There is only one that qualifies: NATO. And, though three members do deploy nuclear weapons, none are on soil of members who do not wish them. And, of the 25 non-nuclear members, several—Eire, Norway and Denmark—are exactly those with whom we have much in common and would wish to be working alongside anyway.
An independent Scotland has much to offer NATO. And, by joining, the removal of Trident from the Clyde is much more likely if we are in the club, arguing the case with friends and neighbours of the same mindset, than if we were struggling to negotiate with England, who, having nowhere convenient to base their Trident ego-trip, would drag their feet to have their deterrent stay as far from London as it already is.
It is this latter thinking, embraced by the great majority of newer party members, that will prevail in Perth. The ‘old guard’ will have their say—as they should—and may still genuinely feel that having the current occupants of Faslane indefinitely is the lesser evil to being a non-nuclear member of an organisation dedicated to not using its nuclear weapons.
If the SNP were to retreat to its idealism of the eighties as our Trade Union Group and a couple of MSPs argue, how representative would it be of current thinking among the Scottish people? And if, as I suspect, it is not representative, then what chance a ‘Yes’ result in the 2014 referendum, idealism or no? After all what is the SNP for?
Either way, it’s worth a rammy at Perth over something as important as this, not least to show that, unlike your typical stage-managed conference, democracy is alive and well in Scotland’s main party.