Forget the economy, for Scots it’s security, stupid


  By George Kerevan
Next week sees the final fling of this year’s party conference season, the SNP gathering at Perth. Salmond’s troops are in fine fettle. Party membership has soared since the SNP won its historic majority in last year’s Holyrood election.
Now well over 20,000 strong, the Nats have half as many members as the Lib Dems do in the whole UK.

In ordinary electoral matters, the latest Ipsos MORI poll shows the SNP still maintains a stout 13-point lead over Labour in the Holyrood constituency vote, while Alex Salmond’s satisfaction rating outpaces the other Scottish party leaders. True, Scottish Labour has narrowed the gap since the start of the year, but by UK standards this is a spectacular vote of public confidence after five years in power.

However, ordinary electoral matters are not what will count come the independence referendum in 2014. The latest (highly reputable) TNS-bmrb poll published this week shows only 28 per cent in favour of independence, 53 per cent against, with 19 per cent don’t knows. This confirms a steady shift against independence over the summer.

Perhaps this is the Olympic Games ‘effect’. At Westminster they are congratulating themselves that the £9billion borrowed by the Treasury to fund the extravaganza was propaganda money well spent.

Sadly, there is a reckoning. George Osborne announced at the Tory conference that an extra £10bn will have to be cut from welfare benefits to balance the UK books.

Next week’s SNP conference cannot afford to turn into either a self-satisfied leadership rally, or a premature wake. As Mitt Romney proved last week, political contests can turn on a dime.

With two years to go until the referendum the SNP has to begin making the positive case for independence rather than carp, or rely on the inertia of the No campaign.

They might start by having a closer look at the small print of that TNS-bmrb poll, because it doesn’t say what the media headlines would have you believe.

This poll always asks some extra questions, including whether voters prefer a choice between independence; tax and welfare powers being transferred to Holyrood but (note) leaving defence and foreign affairs with Westminster; or the status quo.

What the headlines didn’t tell you is that in addition to those who want independence, another 34 per cent of Scots want Holyrood to set and spend all Scottish taxes and to run welfare and pensions. Add the two groups together and fully two thirds of Scots want to opt out of Westminster running the economy and caring for the sick, unemployed and elderly. David Cameron can go on about the Paralympics, but most Scots don’t want London in charge of Scottish people with disabilities.

What this tells me is that whatever happens in 2014, the UK state is in a process of long-term disintegration.

The vast majority of Scots have turned their backs on Westminster.

If the small print of the TNS-bmrb poll is to be trusted, the only issue now keeping most Scots inside the UK is the defence and security question. Which is why the vote at the SNP conference next Friday on Nato membership is so crucial.

Current SNP policy is to quit Nato because it is a nuclear alliance. Prior to its 1981 conference in Aberdeen, the SNP had a more sensible policy of rejecting nuclear weapons on Scottish soil, but staying in Nato alongside our close European neighbours Norway, Denmark and (of course) England. The change in 1981 had less to do with security and more to do with the SNP left wing bashing the then leader, Gordon Wilson. It is time to be more serious.

No one in the SNP wants nukes on Scottish soil. Alex Salmond has promised this stance will be enshrined in the new Scottish constitution after independence. It’s a deal-breaker as far as Nato membership is concerned. Many other Nato members also ban nuclear weapons from their territory, including neighbouring Norway.

But focusing the question of Nato membership on nuclear weapons misses the point that the organisation is, primarily, a collective defence association. Without membership, Scotland would be neutral in a dangerous world.

Withdrawal would disrupt our existing collective air and maritime defences with Canada, Norway, Denmark, Iceland and (remember) England. It would shatter existing command and communications systems that we could never replicate. It would also badly inconvenience our close neighbours. Don’t imagine Scotland will be in line for defence procurement contracts after that.

With oil being drilled west of Shetland and the melting of the polar ice cap creating new global shipping lanes, Scotland’s security priorities lie in the Atlantic and North Sea. Those who think we can dump Nato and build a new security partnership in the area are naïve. There is only one radar system, one air defence system, and one naval command structure – inside Nato. You can’t have two – one with and one without Scotland.

Some in the SNP think they can have their security cake and eat it by abandoning our neighbours, yet have their defence co-operation through the so-called Partnership for Peace (PfP). But PfP is not a collective defence treaty, as Georgia found out in 2008 when it was invaded by Russia. It is a series of bilateral agreements between Nato and individual (mostly former Soviet bloc) countries to give their military minimum interoperability with Nato forces on peace-keeping. Nor does PfP let you keep your hands “clean” of America’s wars, as some leftwingers argue. Sweden is a PfP member with troops in Afghanistan.

In this week’s TNS-bmrb poll, only 17 per cent of women favoured independence. But another 37 per cent wanted Holyrood to run everything except defence – the most popular female choice. Add 17 and 37 and you get 54 – a majority. Persuade those 37 per cent of women that security is safe in Scotland’s hands, and you will win the referendum.

Courtesy of George Kerevan and the Scotsman newspaper