Thursday, 9 September 2021

Small steps and giant leaps


During its conference, which starts tomorrow, the SNP is due to debate the issue of Trident and the removal of nuclear weapons from Scotland within three years after independence. There is little doubt that the party will reaffirm its opposition to allowing the weapons to remain on the territory of an independent Scotland. Amongst the ‘solutions’ apparently being considered by London is that if Scotland is ‘granted’ its independence, it will be on condition that part of the country is carved out and remains part of rUK (or Greater England to give it a more appropriate title) as some sort of ‘overseas possession’. The fact that anyone could even consider for a moment that independence is theirs to ‘grant’ or that they have some right to retain any part of Scotland that they choose demonstrates that, deep down, many of those in charge in London really do see Scotland (and by extension, Wales) as a possession rather than a partner.

One of Labour’s senior MSPs at Holyrood has attacked the SNP’s proposals, pointing out that moving weapons from Scotland to England (Wales, thankfully, having now been ruled out) does nothing for nuclear disarmament; the same number of weapons would still exist, just in a different location. She has a point, although it would be reasonable also to point out that her party’s position – leaving the weapons where they are – isn’t exactly a major step towards disarmament either. A more valid criticism of the SNP would be that, having reversed its previous policy on NATO a few years ago and decided that an SNP-led Scotland would join NATO after all, there is a degree of hypocrisy in being part of a nuclear-armed alliance with a collective policy of being ready to use nuclear weapons whilst refusing to have them stationed on its soil. That wouldn’t make Scotland unique, of course; there are plenty of other NATO members who neither possess nuclear weapons nor are willing to host them.

There are some serious questions to be asked about whether NATO really is a nuclear-armed alliance or not. Whilst three member states possess nuclear weapons, the French arsenal is excluded from the NATO command structure, and there have long been doubts as to whether the UK missiles (which are only leased from the US) could ever be launched without US agreement. In theory, ‘NATO’ could launch a nuclear strike, but in practice, any decision would be taken in Washington, not at NATO HQ. And NATO’s whole pretence of being a nuclear-armed alliance, as well as the concept of deterrence in mainland Europe, depends on an assumption that the US would be prepared to engage in all-out nuclear war in the event of an otherwise unstoppable incursion into another NATO member state. That is no more credible under Biden than it was under Trump. Whether such a debunking of NATO’s status as a nuclear alliance is enough ‘cover’ to excuse the SNP’s decision to join NATO is a matter of opinion. I don’t find it so, and remain deeply disappointed by the SNP’s move away from the sort of defence posture followed by the Republic of Ireland, which looks to me a far better model for an independent Scotland (or Wales).

Does that mean that the SNP’s stance on closure of the base at Faslane is little more than gesture politics, at the expense of Scottish jobs, as Labour’s Baillie suggests? I think not. Whilst I’d like to believe that being forced to build a new base in Greater England might encourage a future Greater England government to think again about whether and why it should retain nuclear weapons, I suspect that’s just a pipe dream on my part. There seems little prospect that they will ever abandon their delusions of power and greatness, and the need to wave their missiles around is fundamental to that. But there is nevertheless a sense in which Baillie is wrong. Whilst it’s true that a single decision by one small country like Scotland has little effect overall, disarmament is necessarily a step by step process, and some of those steps will be very small. Labour’s argument that Scotland should do nothing is tantamount to arguing that no country should do anything; it’s a recipe for making no progress at all. And to misquote Neil Armstrong, even if it’s a tiny step for the world, it’s a giant leap for Scotland; it’s the biggest single thing that they can do to promote the idea of ridding the world of the scourge of nuclear weapons. I’m sure that the SNP will get this one right this weekend.

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