‘Don’t vote for us because you think we’re perfect. Don’t vote for us because of what we might be able to do for you only. Vote for the person who shares your ideals, your hopes, your dreams. Vote for the person who most embodies what you believe we need to keep our nation strong and free. And when you have done that you can go back to Seattle and Boston, to Miami, to Omaha, to Tulsa and Chicago and Atlanta with your head held high and say “I am a member of the Democratic Party”.’
As fans of hit American tv show, the West Wing will recall there is a great moment in the episode “2162 Votes” when Congressman Matt Santos makes his speech to the Democratic Convention where he is meant to step aside in favour of one of the other candidates, only to make the speech of his life and grab the nomination.
This afternoon, at the SNP Party Conference in Perth, huddled at the back of the balcony, as I listened to the debate on NATO I couldn’t help but recall that episode. Not being a delegate I didn’t have a vote in the debate and I went into it with no strong feelings on either side, waiting to be convinced by the speakers.
What a debate we were treated to and what an advertisement for our party and how party democracy should work. I had friends on both sides of the debate and speakers that I greatly admired and, to a man or woman, they all argued their case with passion and commitment, with reason and insight. In parallel to watching the debate in the chamber I was also keeping up with the comments on Twitter (#SNP12) and the simple fact that, as a party, we were prepared to debate such a potentially divisive and controversial issue, not just in a full party conference but in front of the television cameras for the World to see was not lost on anyone. Plaudits for the quality of the debate were coming in from members and supporters of other parties including Labour and the Conservatives.
Whether they were in favour of the resolution or not there was a determination from all in the debate to approach it in a comradely manner. Whether in favour of the resolution or not there was also one issue that united everyone in that chamber and that was a clear an unequivocal opposition to Trident and to nuclear weapons. Be under no doubt whatsoever that today the SNP Conference and its members and delegates reaffirmed its commitment to seeing the removal of the nuclear arsenal from Scotland’s waters. The First Minister had already outlined his intention to include an opposition to nuclear weapons into the written constitution of an Independent Scotland.
In the end the resolution that was passed was a very conditional one. The SNP has long taken an anti-Nuclear and anti-NATO stance. Today there wasn’t really any change in political philosophy from the members or from the party leadership. Instead the debate was one of practicality and of political realism. That isn’t meant to be a criticism. The change came about due to a belief that it was a move that would provide comfort both to the Scottish population at large and also to our international friends and neighbours, a recognition, as Angus Brendan MacNeil put it, of a desire to keep the road to Independence as short as is possible.
Independence is about the transfer of powers from Westminster to Holyrood. It is about ensuring that decisions that affect the people of Scotland, decisions on welfare, on pensions, on immigration and defence as well as health, housing and education are taken by the people who care most about Scotland, that is the people who live in Scotland.
Scotland is an existing member of NATO, as it is an existing member of the UN and the EU. Both sides of the debate proceeded on the basis that, post-Independence, Scotland would inherit membership and treaty obligations in these organisations. The question then would be whether, as a party, we believed that Scotland should withdraw from NATO or continue its membership. Today the party voted by a margin of 426 votes to 332 to continue as a member of NATO on the condition that:
“Scotland will not host nuclear weapons and NATO takes all possible steps to bring about nuclear disarmament as required by the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty of which all its members are signatories, and further that NATO continues to respect the right of members to only take part in UN sanctioned operations”.
Essentially today the SNP moved from being anti-NATO to being NATO-sceptic. Because of a recognition of the importance of continuity and of mutual co-operation between nations and, in particular the nations of northern Europe NATO has been given a chance, a chance to prove itself as an organisation that can work in the interests of Scotland and of all its members.
Be under no illusion that today was a significant day in the life of this party. As Kenny MacAskill put it we have moved from being a party of protest to a party of Government and today’s debate exemplified that. Whatever the result had been the real winner today was party democracy and I believe that can be a real example to other political parties, both in Scotland and elsewhere and a sign to the people of Scotland of the kind of government that they should expect post-Independence. The SNP may, of course, be voted out at the first election post-Independence but today we set an example. We may not always agree with each other but, where we do disagree, we should be able to have an open, comradely and reasoned debate.
So on Sunday we can go back to Glasgow and Edinburgh, to Dundee, to Aberdeen, to Inverness and Orkney and Ayr with our heads held high and say, “I am a member of the Scottish National Party.”