Pages

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Two SNP MSPs quit the party

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

Two Scottish Nationalist Party MSPs have today announced their decision to quit the party following the conference decision to change its policy on NATO membership.

For decades the SNP’s stance has been that an independent Scotland should not be a NATO member, due to concerns about joining what it saw as a nuclear alliance.  Like the Liberal Democrats (and the Liberal Party before), the SNP has a history of expressing suspicion towards the nuclear deterrent and the recent conference vote – in which the leadership won the day arguing that it was possible for a nuclear-free Scotland to part of the military alliance – was passed with a slender majority of just 29.  Clearly passions run as high within the SNP as they do among liberals where this issue is concerned, and while the leadership successfully fought off rebel amendments this victory has come at a price.

John Finnie and Jean Urquhart, both list MSPs for the Highlands and islands region, have decided they cannot longer serve the party they have been members of for 39 and 35 years respectively.   Mr Finnie told The Herald that “although I envisage that I will continue to share common ground with the SNP on many issues, I cannot in good conscience continue to take the party whip” while Ms Urquhart explained that "we believe in an independent Scotland, not a NATO-dependent Scotland."  They will now serve their constituents as independent MSPs. 

Clearly both leave the party without rancour and will, in all likelihood, continue to take the SNP line on most issues.  However, the resignations are a serious blow to the First Minister – not least because they coincide with accusations that he has lied, or at least misled the public, in relation to legal advice in respect to EU membership.  

If I was an SNP member, I would probably have been persuaded that NATO membership was not entirely incompatible with the vision for a nuclear-free Scotland (other NATO members are similarly nuclear-free).  However, I would also be concerned that parliamentarians who take a different view would feel strongly enough to leave the party over the policy change.  Could more have been done to keep them on board?  For the previous few years the SNP has successfully managed to appear united in policy and purpose, relatively free of the bickering and internal divisions so apparent within the Scottish Conservative and Labour parties.  While it is difficult to ascribe any particular medium or long-term significance to the resignations at this stage, there is certainly scope for divisions to be widened.  The public image of a party united has been challenged by this announcement and there is definitely the potential for this to create lasting damage, although to its credit the SNP has so far done well to behave in a courteous and respectful fashion towards Mr Finnie and Ms Urquhart.

There will, naturally, be further criticism from within.  Not simply criticism of a policy change, but also the way in which the issue and the debate were handled.  I profess no knowledge of such things, but if I was a member I would be deeply concerned at this development and would naturally ask questions in regards the extent to which rebels’ concerns were accommodated by the leadership.  It is difficult to know at this stage whether these resignations could have been avoided through more careful handling of a controversial issue or whether the principle of NATO membership was always a line in the sand the MSPs were never prepared to cross.

There have been some speculating today that these resignations signal “internecine warfare”, and that the two MSPs could become a rallying point for other SNP members dissatisfied with either the NATO stance or the SNP leadership more generally.  I see no reason to assume either.  However, with the SNP’s majority now reduced notionally to one, this will create headaches for Alex Salmond and has done little to strengthen his authority.  Today was a day I suspect he won’t want to remember.

I should commend John Finnie and Jean Urquhart for their stance.  While as a natural pragmatist I may disagree with them, I commend any politician so evidently making a sacrifice on a point of principle.  Whether those sacrifices were necessary or inevitable is, however, another matter entirely.

It is undeniably self-evident is that the one thing that unites the SNP is the commitment to independence.  What this debate, and the aftermath, has shown is that when it comes down to policy detail there is not that same level of unity.  While inevitably other matters may not arouse the same kinds of passions as the nuclear debate, as the political conversation surrounding independence moves from the general to the more specific we can expect more of these policy divisions to emerge.

Alex Salmond is a clever political operator and a shrewd tactician.  He has done well to see off various Labour leaders, defeat an electoral system designed to prevent any party from securing a majority and ensure the SNP’s policy of an independence referendum becomes reality.  Perhaps, however, a greater challenge will be to articulate a detailed Nationalist vision of an independent Scotland his party can fully agree with.

For those interested, a Scottish nationalist blog, Auld Acquaintance, asks Principle or Stupidity?

6 comments:

tris said...

As usual Andrew, a load of common sense in a few short paragraphs.

The SNP contains in its membership, probably more than any other party, a wide range of views from left to right. What all the members have in common is a desire for an independent country.

The two members acted in accordance with their conscience on a matter too large for them personally to bury. Many would say that they should stand down as MSPs and let the next people on the list who are happy to take the party whip, take over their seats. I'm not convinced of that.

It is true that as they are list members that voters in the Highlands and Islands did not vote expressly for them, but for the party; but it is also true that they voted for a party that was anti-Nato. Impasse!

It is possible that there may be more people who feel as they do and will rally to them, but I think it unlikely that these people who have worked all their adult lives for independence would be likely to stab the party (and country) in the back at a point where the endgame is in sight.

It is important to remember that, as Alex said in an interview the other day, the SNP has no god-given right to form the first government of the new Scotland.

Important decisions on the EU, Nato, and other matters, will be made, by THAT government, and not this one.

It is up to Labour in particular, but also the other parties to lay out what they will/would stand for in an independent Scotland.

Their failure to talk about this leaves it looking like the only possible policies are those of the SNP, when they are not.

As for the attack by The Hon. Mr Paul Martin, I make absolutely no claim to have any inside information or special understanding of the situation but it has been pointed out that, to make his accusation of "bare faced liar" The Hon. Mr Martin was obliged to leave a sizable number of words out of the middle of his quotation.

When this was put to The Hon. Mr Martin, by a BBC journalist, he declined to comment and was not pushed to do so.

Maybe we should get him on Newsnat!

cynicalHighlander said...

Andrew I vote for the SNP as they can/will deliver Independence also no nuclear power/weapons anything else is for debate after 2014 but not until.

LibDems at one time had appeared to have principals but after 2007 they unravelled very quickly and got consumed into Tory/Labour territory of opposition as that was there place. This was self evident in the complete watering down of the Calman Commission proposal into minimalistic extension of powers which meant throwing out policies they had previously canvassed for when they had no chance of delivering them.

As to the EU legal advice the oppostion and media have taken the bait in the misguided thought of SNP attack! Problem is they have shown a complete lack of individual thought and jumped together into a pit of nails, the future is looking very interesting when this all unravels.

Andrew said...

Tris - of course these key decisions re NAto, the EU, currency, etc will be made by a future government, but clearly the SNP - and other parties - but now be debating them and stating what they would want the post-independence settlement to look like. The SNP have a particular responsibility to not only put forward their own considered vision but to ensure that such vision is viable, e.g. that joining the EU is a workable option. Other parties should perhaps be contributing to the debate too, but as the unionists are more interested in crushing independence rather than the detail of how it would work, it would be unrealistic to expect much from them.

Cynical Highlander - We won't go over old ground in regards the Lib Dems. But as far as the EU legal advice is concerned, there does need to be clarity all round. Even if it's a "no, we've received some guidance but have still to receive formal legal advice". Personally, I don't foresee any huge problems re EU membership, but this does need to be clarified - not least to silence all those suspicious unionist and media voices!

tris said...

Yes, Andrew. I agree completely that the YES parties must put forward their vision of how things might work in an independent Scotland. But it can only possibly be their personal manifesto. We mustn't assume that that is how an independent Scotland would automatically be.

It is quite possible that a post independence Labour government, still controlled to a large extent by their ex-London colleagues, people like Darling, Alexander, Murphy, Curren, etc, would jump at the chance to have nuclear weapons, to take part in every war that came along and punch above their weight in international affairs.

These things must be what they believe in first and foremost. Why would they change?

I take your point that they are putting their combined efforts into keeping their union together at the moment, but it is important to have some idea of what they will/would stand for when/if independence comes.

Andrew said...

Totally agreed Tris. For example, you might expect that the Liberal Democrats would want Scotland to remain within the EU, to be free of nuclear weapons, to have a strong environmental ethos with a thriving green energy industry, positive relationships with neighbours and with scope for significant political reform (votes for 16s and over, PR, etc). In fact, whatever criticisms can be made of the Home Rule Commission report, is has sent out a message of the kind of Scotland Liberal Democrats wish to create. The other unionist parties should follow suit.

Strangely, the HRC report suggests we have far more in common with the SNP than any of the other parties, which makes the decision to ally ourselves so completely with Better Together more than a little ironic.

tris said...

These are indeed the things I would expect of the Liberal Democrats, Andrew, and, as you point out, things that I would expect also from the SNP, so I am in complete agreement that the distance between your party and mine is really inexplicable.