Skip to content

Orientation Day

Tomorrow is a crucial day for the SNP. It is also a crucial day for quite a few SNP politicians. Here’s why.

It is more than a vote on NATO, it is a vote to decide what kind of Party is the SNO. First, tomorrow the SNP will choose its orientation. I specifically mean it will make a crucial decision about what direction it will point. The last time it did this was when it made a very specific decision to reorientate itself towards the business lobby in the early days of devolution. Many might argue that that reorientation served the Party well. Personally, I continue to believe that the main skill of the business lobby is to make political parties believe that the support of the business lobby helps political parties. In fact (it seems to me) the real outcome was that the SNP ended up hopelessly entwined with the Scottish financial services sector at the time of the crash. How different for the Party – and for the independence movement – if it hadn’t.

But that was a bit different. Capture by the neoliberal lobby is problematic; capture by the neoconservative lobby is even worse. It is the functional means by which one political ideology has sought to control world politics. NATO is a defensive organisation second; first and foremost it is an ideological embrace. And its effects are specific and important to understand.

To do so, it is best to think about the phone calls the SNP will now get on a semi-regulat basis from its ‘liaison officer’ at NATO (or whatever the appropriate conduit is). The phone conversations will all go something like “Hi, it’s Max over at NATO. We noticed that one of your politicians has been making a bit of a fuss about [insert any issue opposed to US State Department here]. Now, this isn’t that big a deal or anything but this is obviously a bit embarrassing for our friends and while this isn’t that big a deal and of course you’ll want to handle things in your own way, we wouldn’t want anyone to have any doubts about your commitment to the NATO family before you’re even signed up…” Or words to that effect.

But that phone call doesn’t have to arrive often, because the Party will become self-policing anyway. The people who are the strongest advocates of NATO will be quick to make sure that the Party does not do anything to embarrass new allies. Just things like “Alex, do you really think we should put a speaker up at this event – they’ll be on the same platform as CND and you know that might cause tensions among some of our friends”. Or “Can I suggest that if individual SNP members want to go on the anti-war demo that is fine, but we must ask them not to take SNP banners since that would be a bit too visible”. Conversations like that.

So here’s what this kind of orientation tends to mean. It tends to mean that those signed up stop making a nuisance of themselves. For the SNP it probably means no more anti-war rallies, since as only NATO and its member nations invades other countries it is almost always a protest against NATO. It means the SNP probably will not be comfortable with backbench MSPs asking awkward questions about the use of Scottish soil as refuelling points for flights taking people to illegal rendition and torture. Because, odious as it might be, you don’t want to pick fights with people whose club you are requesting to join. The CIA takes a dim view of ‘its people’ making a noise. It means that there will be little chance of the SNP ever really making any attempt to discover what really happened over Lockerbie. Because whatever it was, the finding-out is likely to embarrass intelligence agencies and the secret service of a number of NATO countries. It means that too much noise about a load of things (the cluster bombs America refuses to discontinue using, the nuclear weapons at the heart of NATO) seems unadvisable. But it also means that a range of extended geopolitical issues also become much more off-limits than before – when do you ever hear a NATO member country ever really saying anything strong about the plight of the Palestinians. Or at least, when have you ever heard them say it twice?

This is called soft power. It is how US hegemony has been maintained since the Second World War. It ensures that as many political entities as possible are carefully entwined with its interests. It encourages political entities to see themselves as allied to all interests by dint of being in the same gang. When the Soviet Union fell, NATO was quick to embrace countries like Poland. Because the US was worried about the territorial integrity of the Poles? Absolutely not. Because the Poles were in a strong geopolitical position and the US wants them allied. And now Poland is a gateway to a series of secret rendition and detentions sites across East Europe and Western Asia.

I have been wondering if the release of Al Megrahi brought the SNP to the attention of the US State Department. I wondered if that might have been the point at which US interests in Scotland became more apparent (“If those Nats keep making bother, what else might they find? Time to get them in for brandy and cigars.”) But either way, you don’t orientate yourself to NATO and not entwine yourself deeply. Certainly, it is worth noting that the Norwegian Minister who has most often been cited by Angus Robertson in favour of the NATO u-turn was revealed by WikiLeaks to be extremely close to the US State Department and seen in his own country as in the pocket of the Americans.

In which direction with the SNP orientate itself? In a direction which means no more anti-war marches, no more pro-Palestinian comments, no more trouble-making over torture and kidnap? That is what NATO means. I’m not at all sure the Party has been told this. And before anyone thinks about posting comments hinting at ‘unhinged conspiracy theories’, don’t be naive. Go and read any of the respected literature about the means and methods of US foreign policy. This is how it works.

But another orientation too. For a number of SNP politicians there have been issues over which they have had to hold their nose (the Monarchy, Murdoch) but nothing which has contravened the fundamental political principles that brought them into politics in the first place. For all of them, a plea from me. I’m not yet that old, but I have learned two key lessons in all my observations of politicians and political parties. The first of these is that if you find a fight of principle and you don’t fight it, you will definitely not fight the next one. That has seemed a pretty iron rule of everything I have seen. It is the definition of New Labour. But the second is almost worse. Once you have bent your first fundamental principle, bending your second becomes alarmingly easy.

I know a number of senior SNP figures are in some anguish over the NATO vote. I feel for them, but I also warn them. If you don’t vote with your conscience on this one, you won’t vote on your conscience again. You will become Jack Straw, Claire Short. (Yes, occasionally a Robin Cook rediscovers it towards the end…). And getting back from there is impossible.

Agree with them or not, the anti-NATO people have put up a good fight and everyone in the SNP should be glad of that. In my view, this principled fight of a major issue while in power is exactly what New Labour didn’t do. At least the right of the SNP might have to think carefully if it wants to try this again. But make no mistake – this is by far its biggest win. The neutering of the SNP as an independently-minded political party. It’s final absorption into the political establishment. I mean, you’ve got Liam Fox backing you now…

Robin McAlpine