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Showing posts with label nuclear defence policy. Show all posts
Showing posts with label nuclear defence policy. Show all posts

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

That naughty, nasty NATO thang …

The Scotsman has one undoubted talent – it can recognise an SNP Achilles Heel when it sees one, and aims its arrows accordingly. It’s a pity the SNP didn’t spot its own vulnerability on the NATO membership question, but there’s a reason for that – it is often described in the media as a disciplined party, as indeed it has been. But there is a fine line between a disciplined party with a clear vision presenting a unified front to a hostile world and one that is suppressing – or ignoring – dissenting voices within its own ranks.

The latter approach runs the risk of creating a climate in which dissent is perceived as disloyalty, and bland conformity to the party line being seen as a virtue. This danger becomes greater when a party that has had to struggle against enormous adversity to gain a foothold in the political life of the nation suddenly, and rather unexpectedly, finds itself with an unchallengeable majority under a charismatic, powerful leader. It is further compounded by the presence of a large number of new members in a Parliament who are equally surprised and delighted, but anxious to please the established power structure. Tony Blair posing with his new intake of Blair’s Babes in 1997 comes to mind.

I’ve been trying without success to track down a quote, which I hazily recall as being in Aldous Huxley’s collection of essays Ends and Means. The idea within it is that at the heart of every major religion exists a core of powerful people who believe exactly the opposite in key doctrines and dogma to the version promulgated to the faithful. This is almost certainly true in politics, and within political parties. It’s sometime called realpolitik, although this doesn’t exactly capture it. An additional factor is that a political party can be a very convenient vehicle for a powerful man or woman at a point in time, even when they do not share its core philosophy, ideals and values.

Again Blair comes to mind. Some believe – and I am one of them – that Tony Blair, an Old Fettesian who was nonetheless of humble origins and and certainly not ‘one of us’, in Maggie’s phrase, and not part of any Establishment power networks, simply looked around -from a position of no real values of any kind - for the political vehicle most likely to allow him to rise to power. As a young lawyer, he found it in the most unlikely of places for one of his class and background, in the mining communities of Durham, and aided by Joe Mills, Regional Secretary of the T&GWU, found his constituency in Sedgefield and his power base in Trimdon village. (I knew Joe Mills very well indeed for ten years or so, and I know Trimdon village, Sedgefield and Durham equally intimately.) The rest is history, a history that brought great wealth and influence to Blair but misery, death and devastation to Iraq  and Afghanistan, terrorism to Britain, and the transformation of the Labour Party into a thing utterly alien to its roots and values.

Now let me be clear – I do not believe that Alex Salmond or any of his key ministers are cut from the Blair cloth. Leaving aside my judgement of them from their actions and statements, their intellect and huge political talents mean that the fastest route to power and influence for any one them would have been through a unionist party to Westminster. They are driven, not by personal ambition, but by personal conviction and a belief in the independence of Scotland. (For example, no objective commentator doubts that Alex Salmond has all the qualities of a world statesman and could have had a glittering career in UK, European and world politics.)

However, the SNP - like any political party – contains men and women of lesser talent who are content to play on a smaller stage, and are realistic enough to constrain their ambitions within their modest abilities. Among that group, it is likely there there are some – I hope only a few -  who hold personal and political views contrary to the SNP’s social democratic, anti-nuclear beliefs which they are willing to subordinate to their career interests.

And the top group may contain some who do not quite burn with a gem-like flame in their belief in a non-nuclear Scotland, and whose key focus is economic and social.

We now know that ministerial group most certainly contains perhaps a majority who believe in an independent Scotland being a member of NATO, a military alliance firmly committed to the possession and use of nuclear weapons.

I also believe that this group contains some who are prepared to see the nuclear disarmament of Scotland and the removal of Trident take a very long time indeed if realpolitik demands it, and are prepared to accept constraints and a radical dilution of the pure vision of speedy removal of WMDs from our land.

All of this is mirrored in the party membership as a whole and in the SNP-supporting electorate who are not party members. Such is democracy, and we must recognise the reality of it, but argue for our own beliefs within that democratic framework.


I expressed the view recently that the SNP was either muzzling internal criticism of the NATO U-turn or those who opposed it were self-censoring. This produced cries of outraged denial from some party members. The Scotsman today believes it has evidence of suppression of open debate, based on a leaked memo from Erik Geddes, an SNP Group Communications Officer. (I have reason to be grateful for Erik’s many informative press releases.) Here is the memo -

I understand some of you may be getting calls about defence policy. Please ask them to e-mail you any questions and respond with the following:

We are looking forward to an excellent debate within the SNP on Nato, which will be democratically decided at party conference in October – the SNP’s clear policy is for Trident nuclear weapons to be removed from Scotland, and independence is the only constitutional option which enables this to be achieved.”

Thanks – Erik Geddes, SNP Group Communications Officer

The most likely interpretation of this email is that Erik is simply doing what any communications department in any political party does – advising its parliamentary members how best to respond to media and external queries in a way that protects consistency of response and accurately reflects policy. However, it is rather oddly worded and sequenced -

I understand some of you may be getting calls about defence policy.

Please ask them to e-mail you any questions

and respond with the following:

That suggests the following sequence of events and action -

1. MSP receives a telephone call asking for information about defence matters, and specifically the Party’s NATO policy.

2. MSP requests that questions be emailed to him/her.

3. MSP does not answer specific questions but responds with the bland pro-forma message.

If the above is an accurate interpretation of the memo – and that is exactly what it says, even if it may not have been intended that way, then it essentially is an instruction, not a suggestion, to MSPs not to answer questions, not to offer their own views – bear in mind that in our democracy MSPs and MPs are elected as individuals, not party drones – but in effect to say “Bugger off, this is a party matter for Conference, and we’ll tell you in our own time what we decide.”

That might just be acceptable if the SNP were not the governing party of Scotland, but to me, it is unacceptable from the party of government to  a free media in a country that aspires to open government.

This would be bad enough if it only applied to media and external queries, but if it applies to voters and specifically also to party members and constituents, it just ain’t on

If a matter as fundamental – and it is fundamental – to the Government of Scotland’s anti-nuclear policy and to NATO membership is open for debate in the confines of a venue in Perth in October, it sure as hell should be open for debate in the media and among the electorate of Scotland.

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Loyalty and freedom of expression

The concept of loyalty is one that has given me some difficulty throughout my life. My unease with loyalty started early, but I was not able to express what it was that bothered me until my teenage years.

OED: loyal 1 .true or faithful (to duty, love or obligation) 2. steadfast in allegiance: devoted to the legitimate sovereign or government of one’s country. 3. showing loyalty.

And of course loyalty is the state of being loyal.

But there in the definition lies my difficulties. Love and obligation I understand, but duty is a much more difficult one. The binding force of what is right – what is required of one: the behaviour due to a superior; deference, respect. The dictionary of necessity begs a whole series of questions here.

What is right? Who determines what is right? Who determines what is required of one? Who is my superior? What is meant by deference and respect? How should respect be shown?

(One begins to sound like the Prince of Wales when one is forced to use so many ones, doesn’t one … One did not expect naughty students to throw paint at one’s Rolls and one did not expect one’s partner to be poked through one’s car window. Did one?)

An old maxim states that society is subordination, which is another way of the powerful saying that the ordinary people have to be kept in line and know who is boss. A key element in subordination is the inculcation of loyalty as the main alternative to brute force…

Fealty is a better word to describe what those who demand loyalty really mean – allegiance, a feudal tenant’s or vassals fidelity to a lord.


When I was a child, three loyalties were demanded of me – loyalty to my religion, loyalty to the nation (the British Empire) and loyalty to various people who were up to no good. Translated, these demands for loyalty all meant the same thing – don’t question or criticise dubious goings-on, especially by those in authority, and don’t listen to the arguments and blandishments of others. I had trouble from the outset with all three; religion, patriotism and the “don’t grass” loyalty to petty – and some times not so petty – criminality. Not the least of my dilemmas arose from the fact that loyalties usually conflicted with each other.

Patrick Cockburn, commenting on secrecy, his father Claud Cockburn, and Wikileaks in Wednesday’s Independent, quotes Sir Burke Trend - I will resist the obvious pun – a Cabinet Secretary of yesteryear on Government secrecy -

“It is a matter not so much of concealing as withholding and what is withheld is not so much the truth as the facts”

Loyalty to Britain (we didn’t call it the UK) was loyalty to a nation which had an established church that was not mine, and which banned members of my religion from succeeding to the throne. Loyalty to my religion meant that I should report wrong doing as a matter of course, instead of closing my eyes to petty theft, the black market of wartime Glasgow, the things that “fell off lorries”, and the behaviour of some teachers and some members of religious orders at my schools.

Loyalty also meant that I should not listen to the vibrant, passionate and articulate political soapbox orators in the Glasgow Barrows, who propounded ideas that challenged my religion, indeed any religion, and questioned the behaviour of the British Empire. My loyalty to my church was also apparently inextricably bound up with loyalty to the Republic of Ireland – Eire – a country of which I knew little, except that it was no longer part of the British Empire and the breaking up had been so very hard to do. This didn’t make it easy on myself. (Apologies to Scott Walker!)

Loyalty also meant loyalty to the Labour Party, but the Labour Party wanted me to go and boo at Winston Churchill, our great wartime leader, as his open car went along Duke Street, past the cattle market. Adult Glasgwegians had long memories of Churchill in other incarnations. (The wartime government was a coalition!) As the great man, dressed in his siren suit, gave the V for Victory sign, we were encouraged to offer the Agincourt version, a gesture that our religion – and good manners - forbade us from using on all other occasions.

Such were the early contradictions in a 1940s Glasgow childhood, and I have to say that I am grateful for them, since they induced a lifelong scepticism about dogma, religious, political or intellectual, and a willingness to open my mind to alternative views of the world.

I was baffled at the ease with which my contemporaries and the adults in my life readily accepted these contradictions, and it was not until I read George Orwell (Nineteen Eighty Four, published in 1948) in my very early teens, and came across his concept of doublethink – the ability to hold two contradictory beliefs in the mind without conflict – that I began to understand.

But in this maelstrom of conflicting definitions of loyalty and conflicting demands by others for this desirable attribute to be displayed, I did find loyalties that meant something to me – loyalty to concepts of freedom, equality, justice and truth – and managed to translate these into loyalty to family, to individuals, to my class – the Glasgow working class – and to an idea of Scotland that transcended the myths and prejudices of the time.


In adult life, the demands for loyalty by others remained – to religion, party, and nation. I had long since abandoned the religious loyalty: the political loyalty to the Labour Party remained, but as an internationalist, I thought of myself as a citizen of the world, and felt no particular loyalty to the UK or indeed Scotland, as a political entity.

But a new demand had appeared, loyalty to an employer - company loyalty. My early working life, from leaving school at fifteen up to National Service at eighteen – and for three years thereafter - was characterised by short periods of employment in a variety of different jobs, but then I settled into the long hauls with a single employer that were typical of the expectations of the 1950s and 1960s. I hadn’t achieved the ‘job for life’ target that most aspired to, and that many of my contemporaries and most people I knew had settled into, but I had a couple of long runs.

The Army had its own demands of loyalty, but I was not part of a combat corps – I was a clerk – so the fierce and necessary loyalties to regiment, to platoon, and to comrades in arms were absent, although I understood them well from my older relatives, all of whom had fought in the British Armed Services in both world wars.

Company loyalty was then (1950s t0 very early 1980s) a significant thing, but a very strange beast indeed. Maggie Thatcher’s wind of change more or less killed it off, but it survived in pockets of industry and commerce, and survives still, although severely enfeebled as an idea. I was never loyal to a company, but I did feel a strong sense of obligation and duty to individuals within it, and to the extent that they constituted the soul of the company and their values and integrity manifested themselves as the company, I suppose that was company loyalty.

The most characteristic aspect, then and now, was that those who most deserved loyalty never asked for it, and those who least warranted it were always trumpeting its value and demanding it. Since I was in Personnel, I was regularly exposed to employees who proclaimed their loyalty vociferously, especially when they felt vulnerable. I had to regularly remind them the Company’s loyalty to them was essentially limited to their contract of employment and its terms, and their loyalty to the Company was subject only to the minimum notice of termination they had to give.

To be blunt, employees who attributed their long service to company loyalty either were doing very well out of the company, or had nowhere else to go, and the company had few problems of loyalty when it came to doing to employees what was commercially and financially required. One company I worked for boasted of its generous pension and redundancy policies. This lasted during the good times, but evaporated rapidly in the face of hard times when they actually had major redundancies and a radical increase in pensioners, who were also inconveniently living much longer.


Political loyalty is what really prompted me to ruminate in this way over loyalty – that and the formidable demonstration of Gail Sheridan’s loyalty to her husband. I gave my allegiance in terms of my vote for over fifty years to the Labour Party, until the sheer weight of evidence tipped me belatedly into the realisation that the  party I was loyal to didn’t exist anymore, and had not existed for decades. Iraq was the moment of truth, but it had been building inexorably for years.

Now I am loyal only to ideas and ideals,  and to individuals who share these ideas, but I am also loyal to individuals who have a different view from me about how these ideas and ideals can best be put into practice, providing their solutions do not deny the very essence of what I believe in. As for loyalty to a political party, well, that will last just as long as its key policies address my key concerns, and its key people exemplify its values.

At the moment -and for any future I can foresee - that party is the Scottish National Party – the only significant party that is anti-nuclear and committed to the ultimate independence of Scotland within the European Community.

Sunday, 25 April 2010

Letter on terrorism to an American friend

Leaving aside the old saying that a terrorist is “a patriot without an army, navy or air force”, the 'rational' - but never justifiable - purposes of terror include, but are not limited to:

forcing the electorate of a state that is oppressing other less powerful states and their people to confront the fact that they cannot escape the consequences of the regime they voted for, or allow to remain in power:

terrorising the civilian population:

gaining publicity for their cause:

forcing the government of the state being attacked to resort to more and more repressive measures and the progressive removal of their own people's democratic rights and freedoms.

The irrational 'purpose' of terror is to give violent expression to feelings of impotence and frustration at perceived injustices perpetrated by a more powerful enemy.

Every state, every empire that has ever existed has used terror at one point or another in its history, and the bloody policy continues. If it is large-scale, it is called military intervention, pre-emptive strike or war – if it is small-scale, it is called covert intelligence operations.

If I revisit the objectives of terror I outlined above, I have to say that Al Quaeda has been successful beyond its wildest dreams - and they are wild and inhuman dreams - because they have produced exactly the effects desired by the terrorists. They have created a bogeyman, and we - the West - have swallowed the fantasy whole and entered into their paranoid nightmare, one from which the world may not emerge.

Unless sanity prevails, we are in a state of perpetual war against a shadowy enemy that cannot be defeated by violence. Only a systematic removal of the manifest injustices that exist in our world by patient, sustained action can eliminate terror, and a good place to start is the Israel/Palestine conflict that is eating like a cancer at our morality and our identity.

I am against violence as an instrument of political policy, however it is applied and on whatever scale. But I am not a pacifist - I believe that an individual or a state has the right to use violence to defend itself against an aggressor, and I believe in the concept of a just war.

Perhaps WW2 was the closest the world ever came to a just war - it was certainly America and Britain's finest hour, and Britain has a debt of gratitude to America than can never be adequately repaid.

But it cannot be repaid, even in part, by failing to speak out against the appalling injustices of both American and British foreign policy as they have existed for the last half century or more. The concept of defence, the concept of a just war, and any relics of the morality and statesmanship, not to say common humanity that existed between 1939 and 1945 have been debased almost beyond recognition.

America now has a man who I believe will prove to be, not only a great President, but a great world statesman, of a kind rarely seen more than once or twice in a century. Like many millions of Americans and non-Americans, I have placed my hope and trust in Barack Obama, because there is no politician in Britain of remotely comparable moral and intellectual stature. But his enemies are many, and highly vocal and powerful. In these dog days of the British Empire, I also place my faith in a small country – Scotland - that has no intrinsic power except the power of its intellect and its citizens' belief in a better world – and a non-nuclear world.