Alex Salmond’s dance of the seven veils

Iain McWhirter asks whether the SNP leader is about to trade independence for something more useful






Alex-Salmond

It was the 1994 Labour Party conference in Blackpool and a youthful Tony Blair, “Bambi” as cartoonists portrayed him, was delivering his first speech as leader.

It was a workmanlike rather than an inspirational effort – until the end, when he went off-script and announced he was going to redraft, ie scrap, clause four of the Labour Party constitution, the one that committed it to nationalising the means of production, distribution and exchange. Delegates rose to applaud, apparently unaware that Blair had just abolished socialism.

Commentators have described Alex Salmond’s embrace of Nato, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, as his ‘clause four moment’ – a decisive break with the party’s radical nationalist past. If so, it had little of the theatricality of the Blair original. The SNP leader simply let it be known that a resolution would be put to the party conference in October because, he said, ‘times change’.

The U-turn a few weeks ago, heavily trailed, created remarkably little fuss, unlike when Blair abandoned clause four and was rounded on by left-wingers such as Arthur Scargill. As on so many issues – the Queen, the pound, military bases – Salmond merely has to say the word and his party readjusts its ideology accordingly.

Yet, there was a time when abandoning the anti-Nato policy would have split the SNP apart. In the 1970s and 1980s, unilateral nuclear disarmament was a touchstone policy for the party. Not only did it oppose Polaris and then Trident on the Clyde – it rejected all nuclear alliances, of which Nato is one. My late mother joined the SNP largely because of its anti-Nato policy, and Nationalists were prominent in the CND and organising the original demonstrations at Faslane and Coulport.

Even after the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, and the threat of nuclear war receded, the SNP remained opposed to Nato – not just because of Trident, but because membership would tie the hands of any independent Scottish government seeking its own foreign policy.

Now it seems the SNP is no longer so bothered about autonomy in foreign policy. The party’s foreign affairs spokesman, Angus Robertson, is more worried about losing UK bases in Scotland, such as Lossiemouth in his constituency. He insists that Scotland would only join Nato on the condition that all nuclear weapons were removed from the Clyde. But the former head of Nato, the one-time Labour cabinet minister George Robertson, pointed out that the Trident system is central to Nato’s strategic defence and it would not take kindly to losing it. This is undoubtedly the case.

However, one suspects Nato might well agree to a phased removal. Trident is a nuclear anachronism since it is designed to obliterate cities in Russia, which is no longer an enemy. Moreover, countries signed up to the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT), like the UK, are all supposed to be phasing out nuclear weapons. Article VI of the NPT commits members “to pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament”. Those negotiations are taking a very long time.

Which raises the intriguing possibility that nuclear weapons might remain in Scotland even after independence. This could be what the Nato U-turn is really about. Salmond has said that Trident “could be traded for something more useful”, which implies nuclear weapons will be negotiated away rather than banished overnight.

Those unilateralists who remain in the SNP would be advised to get very firm assurances at the party conference in October on the exact timescale for any negotiated removal of Trident if they don’t want to see weapons of mass destruction lingering in the Clyde for a decade or more after independence.

So, it is still possible that Nato could cause problems for Salmond, although last week there seemed little evidence of it. There was more obvious concern about the SNP leader’s decision, yet again, to delay the decision on same-sex marriage by setting up another committee to tell him what he already knows.

Some have seen Salmond’s dithering as a sign he has lost his touch. Why doesn’t he just come out with a clear statement of intent and face down the religious fundamentalists? He has public opinion and the opposition parties on side, after all. But it’s not so much that Salmond is weak as that he is worried about losing Catholic votes. Everything the First Minister does right now is geared towards the twin goals of maximising support for Yes in the referendum and keeping the SNP in power in Holyrood.

Indeed, the raft of U-turns and policy fudges raises the question of what exactly the SNP stands for nowadays. It doesn’t appear to be independence, because Salmond’s prospectus now involves keeping the Queen, Nato, the pound, the Bank of England, military bases, joint embassies and numerous other arrangements under which there would be continuity with the UK. It used to be that independence meant exactly that: border posts, currency, army, flag. Nowadays it means Scots still being able to call themselves British.

It’s all about not scaring the horses. Salmond realises only too well that if a referendum on independence were held tomorrow, he would lose. Recent opinion polls show support for independence either falling or stagnating at around the 33 per cent mark.

It looks like a lost cause – unless the First Minister can so reinterpret the meaning of independence that voters start to regard it not as separation, but as a form of federalism, or devolution max. That’s why Salmond has been anxious to persuade sceptical Scots that they can keep the best things about being British even as they take control of their own economic affairs.

The speculation has always been that Salmond seeks a two-question referendum as an each-way bet. He says he would accept a second question on the ballot paper if civic Scotland could come up with one. So far it hasn’t, at least not one that could be assured of a consensus. In any case, Prime Minister David Cameron is adamant that he will not allow a second question, and the Scottish opposition parties back him on this, at least.

But it could be that they are missing the point. If there were a second question, independence would certainly be rejected because the vast majority of Scots would vote for a Scottish parliament with enhanced powers. Independence can only win if there is a single question and if Salmond can swing Unionist waverers into supporting him. Hence the SNP leader’s dance of the seven veils, shedding Nationalist policies to seduce Scots into the bed marked Yes.

It is, if you like, independence without tears. A separatism that involves remaining part of a new, improved United Kingdom. A new country where Scots still retain their allegiance to the symbols of the old country: the Queen, the pound and the armed forces. It used to be that first thing countries did when they achieved national liberation was to send occupying armed forces packing. Now, the SNP is not only happy to accept the military bases of a foreign power, it is accepting treaty obligations, even nuclear treaties like Nato, which say that if England is attacked, Scotland will go to war against the attackers. This is a very strange independence, but what is even more strange is that SNP members seem so unconcerned about it.

Perhaps all we are witnessing here is the natural process of de-radicalisation that happens to all parties that gain or seek elected office. The SNP is no longer a protest movement. Salmond has been in power now for five years and following the landslide in 2011, the SNP is well on the road to becoming the establishment in Scotland. Establishment parties do not like to rock the boat – even the British boat the SNP have been trying to sink for the last 80 years. Ministers like to ride around in their ministerial cars sounding very responsible and important, rather than sounding like wild revolutionaries.

I’m not saying Alex Salmond is no longer committed to Scottish independence – he certainly still is. But he has acquired the caution of the professional politician, who seeks at all cost to avoid disruption, discontinuity, confrontation.

It may also be that the SNP has already discounted failure in the 2014 referendum. It is now focused on remaining in power, the better to ensure Cameron honours his pledge, made earlier this year, to increase the powers of the Scottish Parliament if Scotland votes no to independence.

In fact, the heretical thought occurs that it might actually suit the SNP rather well to lose, narrowly, the 2014 referendum. At least then they wouldn’t have to spell out exactly what independence actually means, and could go into the 2015 Scottish elections on a platform of more powers for Holyrood. Salmond could brush off defeat and carry on with the project, like a latter- day Blair.

Independence? That’s much too scary for the new SNP.

Iain McWhirter is a columnist with the Glasgow Herald where this article first appeared. He blogs here.