IT’S BECOMING CLEAR that Nicola Sturgeon’s case for independence has intellectual gaps. Pundits have twigged to the difficulties in reconciling the SNP’s various foreign policy and trade commitments. Iain Macwhirter goes furthest of all, insisting, “Independence in Europe, the bedrock of SNP policy for 20 years, is over.” It’s perhaps more correct to say that “Independence in Europe”, as traditionally conceived, is irreconcilable with the SNP’s current economic model and would likely mean austerity and (by some definitions) “hard borders” even in an optimistic scenario.
With new focus on the EU dimension, less has been made of another bedrock of SNP policy, namely dismantling Trident. Or more specifically, how this can be reconciled with the leadership’s enthusiasm for NATO. However, even if Scotland isn’t much interested in NATO, that doesn’t stop NATO types taking an interest in Scotland. Our Trident conundrum has been the subject of a report by Rear Admiral John Gower who, served, until his retirement in Dec 2014, as Assistant Chief of Defence Staff (Nuclear & Chemical, Biological) in the UK MoD.
Gower’s opinion is clear: “Joining the nuclear alliance NATO on a political non-nuclear platform would be at best exceedingly difficult. Joining as the country which had either effectively severely destabilised or incapacitated the UK deterrent should be even more challenging”. NATO can be defined as a nuclear-armed anti-Russian alliance of states; the Trident system at Faslane is crucial to its functioning. If Scotland needs to apply to rejoin, as NATO chiefs insist, then the prospects for conflict should surprise nobody.
Option one might be moving Trident, but Gower sees this as fraught with difficulties: “It is…a reasonable assumption that achievement of the necessary planning permissions would be testing or impossible”. The system requires specific geographical conditions, and few communities are happy at the prospect of nuclear weapons lurking nearby. The alternative, as Gower sees it, involves some type of post-independence lease arrangement. But that prospect is unlikely to please SNP members and supporters.
Now, theoretically, for those of us opposed to American power, it should be a good thing that independence makes it practically difficult to maintain a nuclear “deterrent” in Western Europe. These aren’t downsides but upsides of independence. But since the SNP shifted to a pro-NATO stance, it’s de factojoined the Pentagon camp. However you slice it, NATO commits you to the maintenance of the geopolitical status quo: to the Western camp in the Cold War; to the “New World Order” afterwards.
At first, the SNP (under Salmond’s watch) sold NATO to a reluctant membership as a pragmatic concession to public opinion. But over time that has evolved. The Old SNP’s anti-imperialism has been supplanted by the professional, pro-American aesthetic of a New SNP fantasising about the West Wing while hinting darkly that their political opponents must be Russian agents. Increasingly, NATO has become less a necessary evil, and more, for a younger layer of SNP politicians, the essence of their “internationalism”.
Optimists assume that such difficulties will disappear in negotiations. Scotland wants rid of nuclear weapons; so does the SNP; and there the issue ends. QED. This mirrors Nicola Sturgeon’s reasoning over the EU: since free trade is our aspiration, logically it must follow. Yet surely this commits the same basic error as the Brexiteers, namely failing to grasp a complex world where your own will collides with the wishes of other powerful actors. Democratic mandates are the softest of soft power (just ask Greece) and tend to give way to realism, particularly in a group like NATO.
If your goal is independence at any cost, then any concessions are worth it. However, I suspect Trident is a matter of real moral commitment for much of the SNP (and Green) membership. If this remains one of our motives for independence, then we’ve got to be just as realistic as the Gowers of the world. And that entails a firmer negotiating position.