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The NATO row is not a distraction

Some people have argued that the NATO row is obscure and pointless. But this policy will potentially define Scotland’s future and define what kind of political party the SNP is. These things matter.

I’m going to be brief on this today, not least because I don’t want to get stuck on the  NATO issue forever. But there is one kind of comment which is running around a bit which suggests that the whole issue is nothing more than a distraction. I understand the point – this is a theoretical position speculated but not yet even formally proposed by one group within the SNP. It is not a commitment the SNP may be able to enact even if there is a change of policy and even if there is a Yes vote because it may not win power in elections to the government of an independent Scotland and it is perfectly possible that in any such new dawn a strong political force of left/green politics could make it impossible. And yes, I realise that in the day-to-day world we mainly manage to get by quite comfortably without dwelling too much on our national defence position. So if you seek to judge the issue purely in the terms defined by Tony Blair to prevent us thinking about the world then it really doesn’t matter.

What do I mean by this? Well, New Labour used a core technique of perpetual misdirection to minimise proper scrutiny of what it was up to. If Blair was challenged on privatisation, we were all told that this was a distraction from what people really cared about. Likewise foreign affairs, deregulation, tax avoidance and all the other policy issues where New Labour screwed over the ordinary people of Britain. The trick (which seems to have worked) was to define ‘what mattered’ as a tiny and non-political space in which it was just ‘education, health and jobs’. And in those it was deemed beyond the interest of people whether they hospital or school was privately owned and built or fully in the public sector. A question of whether the pharmaceutical industries were profiteering at the expense of the NHS was agai irrelevant. In fact, the political ground ‘that mattered’ was defined in such a way that we were supposed to find all politics completely irrelevant to our daily lives.

This was – is -patronising nonsense. Sure, if ask, people rank ‘education’ and ‘health’ above ‘war and peace’ on the issues that matter to it most. But if asked they rank milk and bread as more important to them than jam – which tells us absolutely nothing. You only rank the world in an opinion poll if you want to reduce it to meaninglessness. It all matters to all of us one way or another.

So is the NATO debate an irrelevance? No, for two very big reasons. The first is simple – the SNP policy is absolutely right and changing it would doom Scotland’s future from the outset. It’s not about being in a club or not, it’s about signing up to an agenda or not. NATO is about imposing western commercial interests around the world (‘stability’ is never stability for the people of the relevant geopolitical regions but for investors). It’s not about defence but projection and once you sign up to that world view that shapes everything you do. And it commits you to handing over public money to private defence contractors. If Scotland is to be independent it must be born without the branding of military adventurism. From the wrong beginning, everything stems and before you know it an independent Scotland is (reluctantly) bombing Tehran. The idea that Scotland would have any influence over NATO is beyond naive.

The second reason is equally simple – I was there during the birth-pangs of New Labour (I ran away the second I realised what it was). It left an indelible mark on how I understand politics. If you let one wrong act pass because ‘it’s not worth the fight’ then everything unravels from there. ‘Oh, let’s just let the NATO thing pass’ – or just as insidiously ‘don’t get involved until its a fact’, which is just to say ‘let the pro-NATO gang stitch things up until fighting is futile’.

When political parties become governments the pressure on them to become a functional unit of the ‘governing classes’, the elite in society, is enormous. The people they shake hands with might be on average income but the people they talk to never are. Their advice comes from people who benefit from the decisions on which they are advising. The forces of the lobbying industry work hard to undermine their faith in their own principles. To fail to understand and accept this is to accept capitulation. Vigilance is always necessary – political parties need critical friends to keep them honest. If they look only inwards and are surrounded only by vested interests then they begin inexorable decline into complete co-option by the establishment.

The NATO issue matters both because it will define the soul of Scotland and it will define the soul of the SNP. It is seminal in exactly the same way Iraq was seminal. It defined New Labour and it defined Britain and both those entities are living with the consequences a decade later. The idea that either Scotland or the SNP can dip its toes in these poisoned waters and not be infected is the very definition of hubris.

This row matters. It matters very deeply. It matters much more than the endless statistical drivel about debt and deficit. It is about the fundamental nature of Scotland as a nation in the world and the fundamental nature of the SNP as a left-of-centre social democratic party. Really, what has happened over the last two months that matter more than this?

Robin McAlpine