The SNP, NATO and the BBC

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By Peter A Bell

First of all, let us be clear about why this topic is even being discussed at this time. It is most decidedly not because of anything said or done by the SNP.

To whatever extent there is a significant debate going on about a possible shift in the SNP’s policy in relation to NATO, this is entirely due to some substance-free speculation by the BBC. Speculation which was surely indulged in with the intent of provoking precisely the kind of outraged reaction graciously provided by Peter Curran and others.

By Peter A Bell

First of all, let us be clear about why this topic is even being discussed at this time. It is most decidedly not because of anything said or done by the SNP.

To whatever extent there is a significant debate going on about a possible shift in the SNP’s policy in relation to NATO, this is entirely due to some substance-free speculation by the BBC.  Speculation which was surely indulged in with the intent of provoking precisely the kind of outraged reaction graciously provided by Peter Curran and others.

This kind of political mischief-making is hardly new.  Even this particular manifestation of it has a history.  Fully two months before the BBC picked up on it Kenny Farqharson was flying the same speculative kite in Scotland on Sunday and urging us all to remember where they read it first.  How disappointing for him that it took the BBC to succeed where he failed, and without even crediting him as principal mischief-maker.

Another thing worth noting is the response of the anti-independence alliance to the BBC’s empty speculation.  Am I the only one to notice the striking similarities in the language used by both Ruth Davidson and Jim Murphy?  Or the fact that both came out with the identical sound-bite, “The SNP just don’t get defence!”? Reading from the same script? You be the judge.

But there is no doubting the drooling glee with which they both pounced on the opportunity to portray the SNP as undecided and internally riven on the matter of NATO membership.  A number of SNP members and supporters have subsequently fueled this perception by comments on Twitter and elsewhere.  But is there any rational justification for the fuss?

The response in other quarters was just as interesting as various individuals and groups exhibited an almost desperate eagerness to afford gravitas to the BBC’s speculation.  David Torrance even insisted that the BBC must have been briefed by sources in the SNP.  His ‘evidence’ for this was the fact that they mention the National Council meeting in June.  As if this was not public knowledge!

If I may crave indulgence for a little aside at this point, I would compare the BBC’s story to the “scoop” carried by The Sun in the launch edition of its new Sunday title in Scotland.  If you recall, this took the form of an “exclusive” which revealed that the date of the referendum would be Saturday 18 October 2014.

The media and assorted pundits immediate leapt to the conclusion that this story was based on information fed to the paper by the SNP.  Because this was what they wanted to believe they totally ignored the fact that there was nothing whatever in the story that could not have been gleaned from information in the puiblic domain.  All the paper added was an educated guess stated with great fanfare and an air of certainty.

The BBC’s speculation about the SNP and NATO policy is similarly no more than a moderately clever journalistic contrivance.  The only facts in the whole thing are that the SNP’s stance on NATO is subject to review.  As is its stance on anything.  This is a political party, not a fundamentalist religious sect.

Where The Sun added their educated guess, the BBC added what would inevitably become a self-fulfilling observation about the debate which their speculation would generate.  Where’s the substance?  There is none!

One further thing worth noting about the BBC piece is Isobel Fraser’s less than subtle attempt to conflate the matter of SNP policy in relation to NATO with the matter of the SNP’s anti-nuclear stance.  Of which more later.

It is, perhaps regrettably, in the nature of such discussions that one is generally well-advised to be as explicit about what is NOT being said as what is.  I am NOT saying that SNP policy on NATO won’t be reviewed.  Nor am I saying that there is no possibility of it coming under review at this year’s National Council.  All I am saying is that the speculation by the BBC on this matter is no more than that.

It tells us absolutely nothing about the actuality or even the probabilty of such a review being undertaken.  We are told nothing that we didn’t know already.  The policy is subject to review.  That is all.

And so to the nub of the matter.  And for this we have to exercise our imagination and suppose that there is some substance to the speculation. We have to suppose that there actually is an intention to review the SNP’s policy in regard to NATO in the short-term.  Perhaps even at this year’s National Council.  I stress again that we have no actual evidence for this, but let’s go along with the idea anyway.

What does it signify? What are the implications.

The fundamental position of the SNP on the issue of international alliances, as on most other issues, is that independence opens up a range of options.  There is, of necessity, a certain ambivalence about the SNP’s position on the realities of a post-independence Scotland for the rather obvious reason that it is no part of the party’s role to definitively stipulate what those realities must be.

Their role, at least until after the referendum, is to drive home the message that this better Scotland is possible.  And, to a certain extent, to set out the options that will be opened up by independence.  Or, at the very least, to remind people that there will be options. 

The dual identity of the SNP as both a campaigning organisation for constitutional reform and a political party in the more traditional sense seems to confuse some people.  And the fact that the SNP currently wears yet another hat as the party of government only serve to increase the potential for confusion.

Sometimes Alex Salmond speaks as First Minister – the democratically elected political head of our nation and its primary representative in all matters.

Sometimes Alex Salmond speaks as the leader of a political party competing with other political parties in various electoral contests for prize of the mandate of the people of Scotland.

And sometimes Alex Salmond speaks as the de-facto figurehead of a campaign to restore Scotland’s rightful constitutional status.

It is only in the first two of these roles that he should be expected to speak in terms of what is intended by his administration or his party.  In the final role he can only rightfully speak to what is envisioned.  The distinction may be subtle, but it is significant, nonetheless.

An all too common error is to think of the referendum campaign in the same terms as a party political contest.  We must differentiate between party positions taken in pursuit of election and party positions taken as part of the effort to advance the campaign for independence.  Obviously, these positions cannot be contradictory.  But they can quite legitimately differ in terms of emphasis and/or specificity.

The matter of the “second question” may serve to illustrate what I’m getting at.

As an independence campaigner, Alex Salmond (and I use his name in a metonymic sense) would not wish there to be a second question on the referendum ballot.  As a party leader he gets to use the possibility of a second question as a tactical device by which to put his opponents at a disadvantage.  As First Minister he has to be completely open to the idea of a second question if there is sufficient demand.  He cannot be seen to be ruling out a legitimate option.

So how does this relate to the SNP’s position on NATO?

Again using the name of Alex Salmond as a shorthand for party and/or administration as appropriate, as First Minister he has nothing to say on the matter of NATO membership. It is a reserved matter.

Likewise, as the leader of a party fighting local, national or UK elections, he has nothing to say, or very little, and certainly nothing pertaining to NATO membership. Neither Perrth & Kinross council nor the Scottish Parliament has any authority in the matter of international military alliances.

And even at Westminster it is not for SNP MPs to seek to have the UK redefine its relationship with NATO.  It is only in his role as the leader of the independence campaign that he has anything relevant to say.  And in that role he is limited to offering a vision of what form an independent Scotland’s alliances might take.

Some have chosen to make the matter of this vision as a “red line” issue.  Some are already talking in terms of a ritual burning of their party membership card.  Boy, are they going to look silly if this all turns out to be no more than media-puff! they are, of course, perfectly entitled to do as they will.

But we are surely just as entitled to question their reasons and challenge the perception of the issue which leads them to make such threats of an action which we must assume they do not take at all lightly.  We are entitled to ask, at the very least, if such action, or even the threat of such action is justified by the facts.

The most obvious question we must ask is why they feel the need to make such threats on the basis of mere unsupported media speculation.  If there had been some announcement from the SNP it might be different.  But, at the time of writing this, all we have is the BBC’s puff.  Is that a sound basis for even contemplating draconian action? I really don’t think so.

Going back to supposing that the policy is to be reviewed, is that necessarily and inevitably a bad thing?  For all we know the party could reaffirm and possibly even strangthen its opposition to NATO membership.  This is highly unlikely, of course.  For the reasons already stated it is most likely that the SNP will maintain its current ambivalence with a strong tendency to non-membership.

Why should it do otherwise? What is to be gained? It is not as if there is a huge amount of public opinion in favour of NATO membership for an independent Scotland.  I suspect that, if asked, most people would be indifferent or, at most, content to regard it as something best dealt with in the period between the referendum and subsequent independence.

Among those who are both interested and informed there is likely to be a similar lack of any sense of urgency.  They will realise that NATO has changed in the past thirty years.  It is no longer the entity that it once was.  It has become larger, broader and more complex in terms of the form of its alliances and partnerships.

No longer is it the case that joining NATO on its terms is the the only option.  Forms of association are now tailored to both the military and the political realities of individual nations. Any review of SNP policy would have to take account of this.  So why assume that the only conceivable outcome of such a review must be some kind of U-turn?  A total reversal of current policy isn’t the only way.  Why would it be the preferred way?

And so we come to what is surely the nub of the matter for those who are reacting so exaggeratedly to the BBC’s political mischief.  The conflation of SNP policy on NATO with the party’s deeply entrenched opposition to nuclear weapons.

For some it appears that even rumours of a possibility of a chance that there might be some unspecified redefining of the SNP policy on NATO membership is equated with total abandonment of the party’s stance against WMD.  Having a sincere wish to avoid giving offence, I have thought long and hard about how to express my feelings about this.  The best I can do is say that I find such concerns unfounded, unjustified and just a little bit hysterical.

It makes little enough sense to suppose that the SNP might shift in any significant way from its perfectly serviceable position with regard to NATO membership.  To go further and imagine that the party would commit political and electoral suicide by compromising its anti-nuclear platform is … well … let’s just settle for saying that it is not credible.

So let’s put the lighter fluid away, tuck the wee plastic cards back in our wallets, and wait to see how this all pans out in the real world.  Let’s not be rattled and provoked by those who relish their power to rattle and provoke.  Let’s all just calm down.