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Monday, 16 April 2012

Changing the policy on NATO – who, us? Whatever gave you that idea?

I haven’t blogged much over the last few weeks because I’ve had nothing to say that wasn’t being said better by others, mainly professional journalists. Since my raison d'être on political blogging has been to fill the gaps and attempt to correct the misrepresentations or inaccuracies of the media, I’ve been kept busy for four years.

But things have changed quite a lot, and although the unionist propagandist nonsense continues, and indeed has fallen to new lows, there have been notable balancing contributions in the print media, often of outstanding quality, e.g. Gerry Hassan, and on radio and television.

There is a highly vocal sector of SNP support to whom this improvement seems to be invisible, convinced that there is a deep, dark conspiracy in the media to deny the SNP the oxygen of publicity and to misrepresent the facts as nationalists see them.

For them, the arch conspirator is the BBC, with BBC Scotland infested by hostile presenters and news readers, all of whom are fifth columnists for the Labour Party or the Coalition, or at the very least, fellow travellers. For those locked in this McCarthyite mindset, even the present or former occupations and professions of their spouses and close relatives become evidence of the conspiracy.

What can I say that I have not already said at length? I have been highly critical of specific instances I saw as unfair media reporting, and I have spent a lot of time and effort dissecting them and commenting. But this is light years away from the allegations of institutional bias levelled at the BBC. It is deeply hurtful to professional journalists and interviewers trying to do the job they are paid to do and that society needs them to do. It is highly counter-productive, breeds a completely understandable resentment among press and media professionals, and is fact calculated to bring about exactly the kind of negative image of the nationalist movement that it claims to detect.

It betrays a total failure to understand the role and function of professional journalists, interviewers and presenters, and exhibits all the worst features of stereotyping behaviour – selective scrutiny of reality, seeing and hearing only things perceived as negative and attributing them to an entire group or class.

I must emphasise that this is not SNP Party behaviour, and the party’s professional communicators and press office under Peter Murrell have a highly-developed understanding of their roles, do a superb job and are highly alive to the need to maintain open and cordial lines of communication with the media.  For them, much of this is an embarrassment and a deflection from their main thrust. In fairness, in a very small way, I also probably give them the odd minor headache and prove to be a pain in the arse.

All of this behaviour has been evident in the lead-up to the NATO story which has now engulfed the Party. Up to the weekend and even into Monday, when the story began to really break, there were still party supporters claiming that it was a storm in a teacup – just another nasty rumour planted by the usual suspects to attack Scotland’s defence policy. Party contemplating change on anti-NATO policy? Certainly not! But interestingly, a high proportion of those denying the claim were also highly sympathetic to the idea of an independent Scotland joining NATO.

After yesterday’s Scotsman, last night’s Newsnight Scotland and today’s press and media - with senior party figure, Scottish academics and spluttering generals past and present taking sides - they will have a hard time pretending that nothing is happening.


The wisdom of the Glesca Barras – soapbox orator, c. 1950:Ye aye ken when politicians are up tae something – they slide away fae ye when ye ask them a direct question …”

First, a confession … I am opposed to NATO, and have been for a long time, but I had a brief period a few weeks back when I felt that I should treat the NATO issue as I do the monarchy, as a republican – a price worth paying, a compromise worth making for the sake of the greater goal of independence. It was a very temporary lapse – an aberration. I am utterly and totally against Scotland joining NATO.

Why is it an issue now? Some SNP supporters, in denial over the possibility, are saying that it isn’t an issue at all, and the whole thing has been got up by the usual suspects, and the Party is contemplating no such thing. In their minds, this is just another manifestation of the wider attack on the SNP’s defence policy for an independent Scotland. There is no doubt that there has been such an attack, ill-co-ordinated, contradictory, and factually deficient in many instances.

Why? Because defence policy is the core issue – the root of the United Kingdom’s hostility to Scotland’s independence.

It is an issue that has been the elephant in the room up to now, because the electorate is largely indifferent to it.

It has already been admitted that UK defence chiefs have been sedulously ignoring it, in the hope that it would somehow go away. They are now faced with the reality of an SNP majority government, a referendum date,  a well-co-ordinated YES campaign and a chaotic and leaderless unionist NO campaign.

They are totally unprepared for the collapse of their nuclear strategy and almost certainly the end of the UK as a nuclear power. They are in a blind panic, running about in all directions.

But amidst all their distortions, misrepresentations, conflicting and unsupported allegations, they have identified one thing that to any objective observer of recent events is almost certainly true – a significant body of opinion exists within the SNP, within the ministerial group and the strategic planning team for the referendum that the SNP policy of non-membership of NATO is not sacrosanct, and that the policy could be changed.

It seems likely, given the nature of the arguments (as I see them) for this change of a thirty year policy that this opinion is also held by the First Minister. Since Alex Salmond is the most popular and strongest democratic political party leader in the United Kingdom, and perhaps in Europe, those opposed to a change of policy can only take heart in the fact that he is also a supreme pragmatist in strategic and tactical terms, and will very carefully weigh the arguments and the pressures for and against such a change.


Let’s dismiss immediately the idea that membership of NATO is attractive to the SNP strategists because they are enamoured of NATO and believe it is vital to either Scotland’s defence or its place in the world. The wish to change policy is driven, in my view, by the following SNP judgments and considerations -

1. The non-nuclear stance of the SNP is a central tenet of belief of the Party, and cannot be questioned or abandoned at this time without a potentially disastrous split and total loss of credibility.

One doesn’t have to go further back than the recent Spring Conference to hear it reiterated in resounding terms from senior party officials, to be greeted by rapturous applause from the membership, without a single dissenting voice. (That is not to say there is no one in the party that is pro-nuclear deterrent – they simply have the sense to keep schtum in public.)

2. A referendum YES vote is a mandate to negotiate the terms of independence. Negotiation means mutual modification of ideal objectives and mutual concession. If NATO membership is defined as negotiable by the SNP negotiating strategists, it would provide a high-value bargaining chip, and could be conceded in return for important concessions from the UK team.

Negotiating note: Professional negotiators enter a negotiation with their objectives and desired  outcomes categorised and ranked on a scale of importance. A clear distinction must be made between goals that are negotiable and those that are not – the deal-breakers.

The removal of nuclear weapons after independence is non-negotiable – it must happen. However, an objective can be categorised as non-negotiable, i.e. a deal breaker, yet allow negotiation on the manner, timescale and terms on which that crucial objective is attained. In other words, the objective can be achieved at the ideal level or on a spectrum ranging all the way to the minimum level of achievement. For example, nuclear weapons must be removed the day after independence (unrealistic) or within ten years of independence (a betrayal!)

3. The American Presidential election will take place on Tuesday, November 6, 2012. The Oval Office will be occupied by either Barack Obama or Mitt Romney for the next four years, which will carry Scotland past the Referendum and up to a possible independence date. Exactly how either possible incumbent will view NATO is impossible to determine, but it is safe to say that neither will be happy about a non-nuclear Scotland and the loss of the weapons bases and Trident, and they will be even less happy about an rUK forced to abandon the nuclear deterrent. A Scottish commitment to membership of NATO could mitigate US hostility in the lead-up to independence and thereafter.

The possible attitudes of the US to Scotland’s non-nuclear stance and its membership status in relation to NATO could range along a spectrum from American isolationism and abandonment of the US role as Defender of the West to rampant, aggressive interventionist militarism, and either extreme could be espoused by either Obama or Romney, either one of whom may prove to be a weak President in the new Administration, vulnerable to extremist within both parties.

4. NATO has 28 member countries – United States, Canada and 26 European countries.

The UK is a NATO member and rUK is likely to remain a member, Norway is a member - a Scandinavian country and near neighbour of Scotland, much admired and frequently cited by the SNP as a model of what independence can achieve economically and socially - and most European states, including the largest are members.

Partnership for Peace (PfP) is a NATO program, formed in 1993 by an American initiative to attempt to create trust between NATO and other non-NATO states in Europe and the former Soviet Union. It currently has 22 member states, 12 of which are former parts of the Soviet Union, 4 states from the former Yugoslavia, EU states Austria, Finland, Malta and Ireland, Sweden and Switzerland.

Looking at the above list, leaving aside any defence or nuclear factors, a body of opinion within the SNP sees NATO as the preferred choice, partly based on economic and trading considerations and partly on just propinquity – most of them are either near to us, or countries such as the US and Canada where there are strong Scottish links in addition to trading factors. And I believe some see it as providing the seeds of a future abandonment of the non-nuclear policy. (Screams of horror and indignation from naive supporters!)

Since an independent Scotland clearly (except to the tiny, but vocal isolationist fringe among SNP supporters who would build a wall at the border and refuse to be a member of anything not wearing a kilt) has to be a member of a defence alliance then, given the above consideration, NATO seems the obvious choice.


A key negotiating consideration is that a valuable trading concession, i.e. a bargaining chip, is one that does not cost much to concede, but which is highly prized by the other party to the negotiations. NATO membership can be seen from the perspective of the above arguments as just that.

Consider the UK perspective as it is now, and as it will be post-independence to rUK and crucially, to NATO.

Scotland has always been the postern gate of Great Britain – seen as a point of maximum vulnerability in the defence of the UK, and therefore strategically vital to control and defend. Since a nuclear-armed UK is a critical component of NATO, it is also vital to the NATO defence concept. (One key problem that this analysis ignores is that NATO was formed as a cold war defence alliance against the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc. There is considerable doubt, not least in NATO, about exactly what its present role is.)

There is another view, one expressed by Dr. Phillips O’Brien last night on Newsnight Scotland to Isabel Fraser, namely that rUK and NATO would not give a damn about whether an independent Scotland was a member or not. On this analysis, far from NATO membership being a bargaining chip, it would be a negotiating objective for Scotland from a vulnerable opening position, requiring concessions from Scotland to achieve it.

Dr. O’Brien is a respected academic and historian at Glasgow University. I can therefore only offer the perspective of a reasonably well-informed member of the electorate, with no claim to special expertise on defence matters. Lest this seem an unequal contest, let me say that our democracy demands that individual voters like me form a judgement on the pronouncements of experts and politicians, decide who they believe, then cast their votes accordingly.

I have not read Dr. O’Brien’s books, nor am I likely to, and therefore can only base my assessment of him and what he says on various appearance on television and on articles such as that in the Scotsman today. My feelings about Dr. O’Brien are that he exhibits a marked tendency, displayed by many academics who operate in the area of defence, namely to almost, by a process of osmosis, absorb the values systems and core assumptions of the major military alliances and the foreign policies of the dominant countries and macro political systems they are supposed to be commenting objectively on.

There seems to be a quite remarkable correspondence between Dr. O’Brien’s views and those of NATO and the US/UK military/industrial complex, which of course may have been arrived at by totally objective academic consideration and expertise. What I am saying is that I don’t share his most of his views nor do I accept his analysis of what might be in Scotland’s best interest.

I also challenge his view that rUK wouldn’t care a damn about Scotland after independence, especially if it maintained a non-nuclear policy. If he is right, to date, the UK and one of its former luminaries, Lord George Robertson of Port Ellen have been behaving rather oddly, as has Lord West, et al, displaying near hysteria at the prospect on a non-nuclear, non-NATO Scotland aligned with Partnership for Peace.

The idea that England – as Dr. O’Brien rightly identifies the real identity of rUK – would be relaxed about an independent country of 5 million people with its own defence force, and extensive coastline, major oil fields and major natural resources, non-nuclear sitting on the northern end of the mainland of Britain – the postern gate – that had not reached any form of understanding on mutual defence priorities, on access to crucial areas of vulnerability is just nonsense.

The idea that rUK – England – and NATO would walk away in a sulk, abandoning Faslane and the nuclear submarines and weapons system to Scotland to do with what they willed, is frankly risible.

In or out of NATO, in or out of Partnership for Peace, England and NATO would have to reach some understanding on defence and nuclear issues with Scotland, and the problem is theirs, not Scotland’s.

One key idea in negotiation that has to be grasped early and firmly is that negotiating advantage and negotiating power does not lie in relative size, strength and visible power of the parties – it lies in the capacity to strategically deploy power at the right time and in the right circumstances. The harsh fact for England and NATO is that in vital strategic areas they need Scotland more than Scotland needs them – and they know it. Hence the panic over the defence implications of independence.


Defence was always going to be the issue for Scotland and for the UK, but it has not so far been the issue for the electorate, nor was NATO membership, or so it appeared from the recent survey of 7112 SNP members by Professor James Mitchel. where they were spilt fairly evenly on the issue, but all fairly relaxed about it. Well, they ain’t relaxed anymore.

I think it was Aldous Huxley (an almost forgotten name) who said that at the very top and at the very heart of every major religion is a tight group of people who believe exactly the reverse of the main dogma of the creed, as fed to the masses. While this is not quite true of political parties, there is an element of it in the SNP’s present posture on nuclear issues and defence.

I know that as a negotiator, when one gets close to clinching a difficult deal a kind of terror grips the negotiating team – a fear that all will be lost if key compromises are not made. This is a point of maximum vulnerability, especially when the negotiators have a large constituency standing behind them with a highly developed expectancy based on earlier negotiating objectives and strategy.

So here’s is what I believe -

The SNP, nuclear weapons and NATO

Independence is within the Party’s grasp in a way that it never has been in its history. The SNP are in power with a dominant majority, the reality of the referendum has been grudgingly accepted by the opposition, the date and timescale are known, the real arguments are well-ventilated, the unionist parties are uncoordinated and electorally threatened, whereas the independence campaign is well-organised, resourced and funded.

But the electorate, if opinion polls are to be believed, is a long way from having made their minds up, and no one can be certain just what issues are vital to them, despite repeated polls, claiming to have the answer. One thing seems clear – defence issues only matter to the electorate in relation to jobs, and perhaps vague feelings about security. Otherwise there is apathy, except among core groups who see their personal interests affected by defence matters. The nuclear issue, despite polls showing a majority of Scots being anti-nuclear weapons, is not an intense one.

The Party has succeeded, more or less, to defuse certain issues – the monarchy, the currency, social union issues, border issues, EU and UN membership – by a series of small, but significant shifts.

On the nuclear issue and on NATO, I believe they are risking alienating a segment of their core support, but appear willing to do so on the realpolitik calculation that those in favour of a nuclear-free Scotland can only have it delivered by independence and the SNP, so have nowhere else to go. They are only partly right on that, in my view.

I am against NATO membership because I believe that NATO is still dragging the baggage of its cold war role behind it into what should be a new era and a new role for it. I profoundly distrust the people at the head of NATO, their values, their world view, and their judgement. I distrust NATO because, regardless of the policies and the nuclear status of its members, NATO is committed to nuclear weapons, the concept of nuclear deterrence, and the retention of WMDs – Trident - as key strategic weapons.

I reject the argument that says that since a country like Norway can be a member and still maintain a non-nuclear defence and foreign policy stance domestically while retaining its NATO membership, so can Scotland. I think Norway are wrong in this judgment, and that they should not be a member. I think NATO polarises the world into the old East/West cold war mentality, that its current role is ill-defined and ill-thought out, and that any country that remains a member increases the likelihood of nuclear conflict and reduces the chances of nuclear disarmament. I think the most of the members of NATO are in effect pawns of US, UK, French and German foreign policy, and when the chips are down, of US foreign policy.

Dr. O’Brien argues that Russia, a member of Partnership for Peace has a deeply unstable, semi-democracy and could behave unpredictably at any time. Any close observer of the modern United States could reach similar conclusions and make similar predictions, and indeed many already have. In my view, the continued existence of NATO contributes to the instability in Russia, and it is viewed by deep and justifiable suspicion by a large part of the world community. It is a polarising factor.

I also believe that a retreat from the SNP’s NATO policy would open the way for a fudged position on the status of nuclear weapons, Trident, and the submarine bases in an independent Scotland. I believe it would provide a rationale for delay in removing nuclear weapons, or even disarming them, and would lead inevitably to more and more compromises, and in extremis to the effective collapse of the SNP and Scotland’s non-nuclear stance.

I also believe that some in the SNP are in favour of nuclear weapons, of the concept of the nuclear deterrent, and are essentially far right in their core politics. If this debate flushes them into the open, I think that will be a good thing, however dangerous that might be. I think it would be a better thing if they were flushed out of the Party entirely.

Many party members, perhaps most, will not see things in this way, and would abide by a conference resolution that changed the policy on NATO, in fact many have already said as much on Twitter and elsewhere.

My position is that if the Party votes to join NATO, I cannot remain a member. I will continue to vote for the party, campaign for independence and vote YES in the referendum, but I will have to seek out other groups committed to independence and a non-nuclear, non-NATO Scotland.

I reject absolutely the argument that all this can be sorted out after the referendum vote in the negotiations, or indeed after full independence. I believe the Party has to sort it now – and fast. To do that, they have to stop equivocating and hoping it will all go away. It might just do that for the majority – it won’t for me.

If all of the above seems too long, not tightly enough structured, or otherwise less than perfect, I can only say it is a blog, not a doctorate thesis or a submission to a learned journal. It is the thoughts and reflections – and position – of one Scottish voter and one Scottish voice, no more and no less.

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