Murdo Ritchie looks at what is behind the SNP leadership’s move to drop party policy against NATO.


The coming referendum on Scottish independence is rapidly being turned into one on NATO membership too. It is consciously being used to shape the future character of Scotland’s relationship with the principal nuclear weapons powers. Supposedly, only a referendum on whether Scotland leaves the Parliamentary Union with England, Wales and Northern Ireland, it is becoming a delivery mechanism for agreement on the continuation of the monarchy and membership of the NATO military alliance.

These are only some of the issues at present, but more may be added later to imply consent to strongly contested policies. This motion will affect more than SNP members and supporters but will have consequences for everyone voting in the forthcoming referendum.

Challenging existing policy, Westminster MPs Angus Robertson (1) and Angus MacNeil are asking the SNP’s National Conference in October to back a motion making an independent Scotland a member of NATO. As they put it, “The updated [SNP Defence} policy forms part of the preparations for the independence referendum in 2014.” (2) Behind them are powerful military, political and diplomatic forces that have no place on the ballot paper and no vote in the referendum. Nevertheless, they are currently lobbying for their best outcome in case the popular vote says “Yes.” They are moving now so that any attempt to stay free of NATO’s clutch is made more difficult. Using the referendum to claim a “Yes” for NATO membership is part of their strategy. It won’t appear on the ballot paper but they will claim that any “Yes” vote was an agreement to NATO membership as well.

Over the decades, the SNP gained much respect from anti-war activists for its firm opposition to to Scottish and British nuclear weapons, and its apparent belief that an independent Scotland should leave NATO. This stood in powerful contrast to Labour’s anti-war activists who were continually undermined and betrayed until almost none remain. The anti-NATO position shifted when SNP leader Alex Salmond made an announcement that the longstanding policy of withdrawal had become one of a post-independence referendum on the continuation of membership. He “has already announced that he will vote in favour of its adoption.” (3)


The motion asks that an “independent Scotland will inherit its treaty obligations with NATO.” (4) This would mean keeping Cape Wrath as the only ship-to-shore firing range in Europe used by NATO forces because it is the only location in Europe where military aircraft can drop 1,000lb bombs. It would also mean keeping another bomb site used for smaller munitions at West Freugh in Luce Bay, Galloway. Also retained would be the open air depleted uranium testing range at Dundrennan, again the only site of its kind in Europe. It is also the location for the so-called energy supergun that is expected to be the US’ weapon of the future. And there are storage bases for various forms of conventional weapons at numerous locations throughout Scotland that have been regularly activated for many conflicts. Even if an independent Scotland chooses not to take part in a NATO conflict it will still be a supply base and a training facility.

These shifts are happening now because the SNP is no longer a political party marginalised by the Westminster constituency system of popular representation. Its growth has occurred outside of that framework by electoral success in the Scottish Parliament. It is now the Scottish Government and is capable of winning the forthcoming independence referendum. It is looking for approval not just from the Scottish middle classes but the transnational capitalist class, especially in the United Sates. It believes that the anti-war activists who have filled its ranks will abandon their strong opposition stance and sacrifice all for the goal of independence-in-NATO in the hope the policy will be reversed at some, unspecified later date in the future. Many of the SNP’s activists joined because they felt that staying in Britain meant staying NATO; if the motion is successful, an independent Scotland would mean the same. A political process of greater acceptance of imperialist and military logic is beginning. It will leave many anti-nuclear weapons and anti-war activists politically compromised.

The movers of the motion make much that they are still committed to the removal of the nuclear submarine base at Faslane in the Gare Loch and the nuclear weapons storage facility at Coulport on Loch Long in an independent Scotland. “The SNP reiterates its commitment to non-nuclear defence, international law, the United Nations.” Yet, in many ways, NATO membership poses a greater threat to world peace than the possession of nuclear weapons. It is as if a householder has chased a thief from inside his or her house only to leave the back door wide open. Nuclear weapons can be removed but NATO membership is the open back door tempting them to return.

Scottish CND’s response was to welcome the commitment to the “speediest, safe removal of nuclear weapons from Scotland.” (5) But it made clear that it does not support an independent Scotland or the UK retaining NATO membership. It describes NATO as a “creature of the Cold War” and that the “Strategic Concept of the alliance says that so long as nuclear weapons exist, NATO will remain a nuclear alliance.” It also points out that, so far, the non-nuclear states have failed to change the organisation’s policies on nuclear weapons of mass destruction.


NATO is a “military alliance which is controlled at all levels by the United States.” (6) Its military commander is always a senior US officer. The largest part of its resources come from the US. These treaty obligations make it very difficult, though not impossible, for a future independent “Scottish Parliament and Scottish Government [to] determine defence, security and foreign policy.” (7) Lord Ismay its first General Secretary summed up its goals at its birth as keeping “the Russians out, the Americans in and the Germans down.” NATO membership makes it much harder for any nation to break with many US foreign policy goals, especially while other countries publicly display their compliance.

At the onset of its post-war origins, its three major goals were:-

1. Integrating Europe’s economies with the needs of the United States;

2. Establishing a unified military structure against the Soviet Union; and

3. Decolonisation of the colonial and semi-colonial countries from the European powers.

Today, it no longer needs to maintain as extensive a structure against Russia or its successor states, and a substantial reduction in the global number of nuclear weapons has happened. Also there are very few parts of the world remaining that are directly run from European capitals. Political decolonisation has been almost entirely completed even though political and military manipulation as well as economic coercion still takes place.

Following the disappearance of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, NATO has massively changed. It no longer fights the Cold War; it has begun to find a more dangerous purpose. It was once correct to call it a “creature of the Cold War”; but not now. It is still an anti-communist, anti-socialist organisation, even though its new targets hold different ideologies. (8) It has become a mechanism for US power projection against former enemies in Russia and the former Yugoslavia, its oil and gas interests in the Middle East, especially countering the influence of Iran, and the growing economic and military power of China. Yet US relative decline with respect to its main rivals is becoming visible while it remains largely unseen to its main partners because they are also in decline.

NATO stopped being an organisation that could claim it was principally dedicated to collective European defence when it adopted an Out-of-Area Operations policy in 1992, only a few months after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. These were supposedly only to take place under the auspices of the UN or Organisation of Security and Co-operation in Europe. But any pretence that the organisation was only a defensive organisation no longer existed when it adopted this more assertive approach. Very quickly, there were reports of NATO considering engagements in the Middle East, Central Asia and the Far East; areas that had previously been outside its remit. To date, NATO has been the mechanism used for the projection of military power in the former Yugoslavian republics of Bosnia Herzegovina, Republika Srpska, the seventy-nine day bombing campaign against Serbia, the Afghanistan war launched in 2001, Operation Ocean Shield against piracy in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean and the 2011 war in Libya. (9) Its military activities have moved away from the hypothetical to the actual.


The claim that NATO is a “nuclear alliance” is only partially correct. It arose out of the inter-imperialist conflicts in Europe that were expressed in the First and Second World Wars. All the European belligerents came out of these conflicts massively weakened and required US economic assistance and political leadership or they would have fallen into conflicts again very quickly. The European Defence Community, essentially NATO without the US, died very quickly in recriminations between all its European partners. Undying tensions in Europe meant the US became an essential judge and enforcer. It came into existence when nuclear weapons were the most developed weapons available. Nevertheless, NATO’s main strength is the combined conventional forces of its member countries.

In their early years, an arms race for the possession of nuclear bombs was fought not only between the USA and the Soviet Union but with the UK and France sprinting outside the pack to position themselves in the leadership group. The bomb’s smaller size meant that there could be more political players. Possession of the bomb gave political strength. Former Chair of the British Joint Intelligence Committee, Sir Percy Craddock summed this up well, “[Britain’s} nuclear capability [was] seen not so much as a weapon of war, but as a political lever in US-UK relations.” (10) This approach or mind-set still exists today but, today, recognises that military independence from the US is no longer possible. The existence of some states possessing nuclear weapons while others do not has always been a factor affecting the principal belligerents in the Cold War. The pursuit of “shelter” under an imaginary nuclear umbrella was one of the reasons to join NATO even if the state had no intention of possessing any nuclear weapons of mass destruction.

Nuclear weapons were not only a concern of the principal Cold War belligerents but also by the liberation movements undertaking struggles against imperialist nations in the colonial and semi-colonial countries. Consequently, they were not just weapons by their direct use but also weapons by the threat of their use. They became a factor for consideration during any liberation struggle. In a sense, all wars and conflicts since the first bomb was dropped at Hiroshima became nuclear conflicts even if no nuclear weapons were ever used. (11) All NATO conflicts, even if they use only conventional weapons, can undergo the “flexible response” of escalating towards the use of nuclear weapons, so they are always projections of their threat of later use. This is why it is misleading to claim that because twenty out of twenty-eight members of NATO are non-nuclear that a genuine “opt-out” exists as Robertson and MacNeil claim.

One of NATO’s essential purposes is to structure non-nuclear weapons states under the “sovereignty” of the nuclear states, principally the United States. Robertson and MacNeil make an astonishing claim, “With an agreement on the withdrawal of Trident and retaining the important role of the UN, Scotland can continue working with its neighbours and allies within NATO.” It does not explain why NATO membership is so necessary for Scotland to work with peaceful purposes not only with allies and neighbours but throughout the world. Indeed why would any country seeking global peace want to join an alliance that comprises approximately seventy per cent of the world’s defence spending?

But this approach is the necessary stance required of nuclear weapons diplomacy. International laws and treaties become symbols of acceptance and submission to the hegemony of the major international powers. Although the term vassal state is probably inaccurate, nevertheless, it places the location of some states in the global hierarchy. Munya Mardoch former Director of the Israeli Institute for the Development of Weaponry put it this way, “The moral and political meaning of nuclear weapons is that states which remove their use are acquiescing to the status of vassal states. All those states which feel satisfied with conventional weapons alone are fated to become vassal states.”(12) Robertson and MacNeil believe that by standing joining NATO they can position an independent Scotland somewhere higher up the hierarchy of nations. In this sense, “[j]oining NATO would certainly be a privilege.” (13)


Although NATO no longer fights the Cold War, it has adopted a more belligerent posture in international affairs. Under Article 5, a tight form of discipline was applied. An attack on one member was to be responded to by full military mobilisation across Europe. However, growth in the number of members, and Out-of-Area operations has produced a looser type of structure; it has become pool out of which a coalition of willing members can be called up to participate at different levels. This suits European countries reluctant either to become involved in conflicts or spend more in defence.

During the recent Libyan conflict, the consequence rapidly became apparent, as I wrote at the time, “Although described as a NATO war, only six members have been striking targets, others like Spain will only operate the no-fly zone of the UN Resolution (1973), some have said they will only perform so-called post-conflict peace-keeping acts, while other members have opposed the war such as Germany, Turkey (its main Middle Eastern member) and Norway. At the very least, NATO’s command structure has collapsed.” (14) The US has become just as irritated by this pick-and-mix approach to participation as it used to be over Europe’s unwillingness to honour its financial and resource commitments.

All throughout its history NATO has operated an insinuative approach to many external foreign institutions moulding them towards its will. This has been especially true for the EEC/ EC/ European Union. As NATO Review wrote, “Improving US-EU relations and EU-NATO relations have been the hidden features of both NATO and EU enlargement.” This is necessary because, “neither institution addresses all issues, both can attend to separate, though not separable functions. In this way NATO can protect its members from external aggression, while [the EU] can attend to the soft security issues that might otherwise disrupt the peace.” (15) These changes have meant that NATO is less like a highly disciplined, unified war fighting apparatus and more like a onion with different layers of membership.

NATO’s outer ring is the Partnership for Peace Programme. Portrayed as a “softer” form of organisation, it has become an essential mechanism to bring former Eastern European countries into full NATO membership, it has also become an essential mechanism to buy political support by integrating formally neutral countries with military manufacturing assets like Sweden (Nobel, Bofers., Saab etc.) and Finland (Patria, SAKO, Valmet etc.) into the alliance and to make it easier for some countries like the Irish Republic to take part in “soft security” issues such as post-conflict peace- keeping. This makes the maintenance of hegemony easier at all levels. But the outer rings of NATO membership still only exist to protect the inner core for the purpose of making war fighting easier. Nobody should ever deceive themself that they have a more peaceful purpose.


SNP members and supporters are approaching an historic threshold regardless of the outcome of the 2014 referendum. I have argued that like the two devolution referenda it will take more than one before anything resembling a settled consensus can emerge. The difficulty will come if the SNP leadership and membership base feel it is necessary to abandon strongly held positions so that a “Yes” vote is achieved. Hijacking the independence referendum to make it appear that an agreement has been obtained on other largely un-discussed issues is unethical and displays the political sharp practice that many joined the SNP hoping to escape. Robin MacAlpine of the Jimmy Reid Foundation is correct to state that concern about the sudden appearance of this issue is not a diversion away from more important issues. (16) This is an issue that can shape the character of a future Scotland. If this policy is allowed to creep into the referendum by stealth, only announcing its existence to a wider public afterwards, there will be a very large number of people who will feel they have been misled and politically compromised. That cannot be a desirable outcome.

This is only a response to the announcement of an unexpected policy shift. It is not a case against Scotland’s membership of the NATO alliance. That remains to be written. Scottish independence and NATO membership are two entirely different issues and any decision on one should be made separately from the other.


1. The Scottish National Party’s Defence Spokesman.





6. p 29, Alan MacKinnon, Scotland: War or Peace?, The Red Paper on Scotland, editor Vince Mills, Research Collections, Glasgow Caledonian University, 2005.


8. As President Truman said to assembled foreign ministers the night before the NATO Treaty was signed, “The fact that we are assembled in Washington for the signature of an Atlantic Pact symbolises the nature of our common concern –the overwhelming military potential of the USSR. Yet I would like to emphasise that the Soviet menace is not a military one only; it is the menace of communism as an idea, as an egalitarian, dynamic social force which, feeding upon world economic and social disequilibrium, in itself poses a basic problem to the West, one which though accentuated by its Soviet power backing, is perhaps more dangerous in the long term.” Memorandum of Conversation, The White House, 3 April 1949.

9. See Murdo Ritchie WHO WON THE WAR? THE WAR BEHIND THE WAR IN LIBYA in Resisting the War Drive,

10. p 61, Sir Percy Craddock, Know Your Enemy. How the Joint Intelligence Committee Saved the World, John Murray, 2002.

11. A very good outline of this issue can be found in Joseph Gerson, Empire and the Bomb. How the US Uses Nuclear Weapons to Dominate the World, Pluto Press 2007.

12. p 153, Israel Shahak, Open Secrets. Israeli Nuclear and Foreign Policies, Pluto Press, 1997.


14. Ibidem,

15. See What’s the Difference? (On NATO & EU Military Integration)



(This article was originally posted on:-


  • Since I wrote this piece, I’ve had a chance to read Malcolm Chalmers’ and William Walkers’s, “Uncharted Waters. The UK, Nuclear Weapons and the Scottish Question.” Written ten years ago it outlines, in systematic form, the choices (and pressures) that will need to be taken. The authors’ contention is that NATO and EU membership will make it very difficul;t for an independent Scottish government to remove the bases and the presence of the submarines. Howeve, the scenario they envisage is that a deal will be made for Faslane and Coulport to remain but leased to the remainder of the UK. This would allow an independent Scottish government to claim that it doesn’t ppossess nuclear weapons.

    I suspect that once the Nato question is out of the way, that a massive amount of hype about the so-called economic benefits will lay the groundwork for some sort of arrangement with dazzling figure of around a billion a year being possible as a future leasing deal.

    It is always worth remembering that nuclear weapons are only the shadow in the background to NATO membership. Though they are important for structuring political compliance. within US allies. Its strength comes principally from its integrated, pooled use of conventional forces. The other area that I believe quite is quite sinister, but almost unexamined, is the level of economic integration required and its eventual impact on domestic policy. I learned recently that neutral Ireland has developed a software writing industry for military hardware. Under economic pressures at home, a cynical external organisation can incentivise this type of iindustry till it can deliver political clout.

    Murdo Ritchie, 13.8.12