Forget Trident. Syria is the security test for the SNP

The leader of the opposition has been making life difficult for the government again.

After providing details of the strategic defence and security review, the Prime Minister was grilled on cuts to manpower, hardware and bases and lambasted for his 2010 decision to scrap the entire Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft fleet at a cost of £4bn.

Needless to say, we are not talking about Jeremy Corbyn, whose colleagues delivered their judgement on his faltering response to David Cameron’s statement by abandoning him one-by-one.

Once again, it fell to Westminster SNP chief Angus Robertson to put the executive on the spot. (When it comes to security matters, he enjoys what we in the west of Scotland call “hauners” in the form of the Nats’ respected defence spokesman Brendan O’Hara and defence committee member Douglas Chapman.)

The Moray MP’s deadliest barb was reserved for the subject of procurement. During the referendum, contracts for 13 Type-26 frigates to be built on the Clyde were held out as a reward for voting No. On Monday, the Prime Minister announced eight contracts and “at least another five of the new type of frigate, probably more, and they can be built in Scotland if the conditions are right”.

Understandably, the Nationalists are sceptical of this wording, which carries no guarantees and sits uneasily alongside a commitment to procuring 138 F35 joint strike fighters despite costings for just 24. “No voters and shipyard workers are being betrayed,” Robertson told the Commons. The SNP seeks grievance like infrared missiles seek heat but in this they are right on target.

The third party cranked up the pressure on Tuesday with a motion opposing the renewal of Trident. Labour, a party of multilateralists led by a unilateralist, demonstrated its support for the nation’s defences/abhorrence of nuclear weapons by abstaining. Only Labour could find three ways to split in two.

To the vast majority of Nats, opposition to Trident is an article of faith, almost as central to their worldview as the restoration of Scottish sovereignty. Whatever you think of Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent or the SNP’s policy on it, we will not be giving it up anytime soon.

The big test for the Nationalists today is not conventional or nuclear security. It is their stance on the defence of Britain and our allies in the fight against global terrorism. That manifests most immediately in the question of intervention in Syria.

In the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks, Western governments can no longer amble their way towards a strategy on the Islamic State. An aerial strike here and arms to the Kurds there isn’t going to cut it anymore. In all likelihood, boots will have to hit the ground. The alternative is more (and more spectacular) outrages in the streets of European capitals. That, and not some warmongering bloodlust, is why David Cameron is prosecuting the case for concerted action against ISIS.

There are many, too many, in the SNP who think we should withdraw into our own wee bothies, secure from the perilous storms whipping around outside. It is the same old fantasy of appeasement and isolationism that we’ve seen before – just as tempting, just as wrongheaded.

This strain runs through most parties, left and right, and is born of a series of misconceptions. The first is that the threat of Islamist terrorism is something that happens Over There and we have no need to worry about it. New York stockbrokers, London commuters and French metal fans would testify otherwise if they were still with us.

The second misconception is that Islamist terrorists will leave us alone if we don’t bother them, or we throw Jews out of the West Bank, or apologise profusely enough for one historical sin or another. It is Western arrogance to believe it’s all about us when the enemy has a developed ideological agenda and explains it at length.

The third assumption – one the SNP clings to as a cover for the first two – is that the solution is always diplomatic or, if military, achieved through multilateral institutions. Nationalists who oppose military action take refuge in a UN resolution, knowing the potential for Russia or China to cause trouble is substantial.

The drumbeat of war is always unnerving but shrugging shoulders is the sound of moral capitulation and defeat. There is nothing straightforward about Syria, a country where victory for either of the two principal forces would represent profound failure. Things will get messy. Things are already messy. To leave Syrians to the brutality of Assad and ISIS because the situation is too difficult is callous selfishness repackaged as a foreign policy. To allow ISIS to direct the mass murder of our citizens and not act to cripple their operation is negligence and cowardice.

The SNP is not a pacifist party and its defence team needs to drive home that message. Scottish CND has allowed itself to become a branch office of the SNP but it should always be clear that, Trident aside, the SNP is a mainstream party on security. “Bairns not bombs” will sound hollow if, God forbid, bairns are blown up in an Edinburgh railway station or a Glasgow concert venue.

Ultimately, Nicola Sturgeon will have to take this decision. I don’t pretend it is an easy one, particularly for someone of her ideological instincts. There is another consideration that lies beyond our security and strategic interests and our debt of solidarity to France and Lebanon and every other nation attacked by fascist barbarians. The SNP still has to make the case for independence and in an increasingly hostile world.

A breakaway Scotland run by the Nationalists could pursue a less assertive foreign policy but independence supporters have to quell the notion we would be a global pushover. Intervention in Syria is an opportunity for the SNP to show that it is a responsible party and that, given the full tools of independence, its government would be a reliable member of the international community. Offering their support to the Prime Minister would allow the Nationalists to stipulate conditions, such as guarantees on humanitarian resources and reconstruction investment. It could also be part of the conversation on helping Syrians forge a post-ISIS, post-Assad future.

The SNP is beginning to carve out a feasible pro-peace, pro-security defence position. In this and a number of areas, it offers a more cogent policy agenda than the official opposition. Syria is a political, moral and security test. Will Nicola Sturgeon and Angus Robertson pass it?

Originally published on STV NewsFeature image © Christiaan Triebert by Creative Commons 2.0.

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