Sunday 6 March 2022

Consigning the SNP to ancient history


Politics suddenly came to an end when Russia invaded Ukraine. There is nothing in the papers anymore about Boris Johnson having parties in Downing Street. There are no more briefings about Covid and we’ve all ceased caring very much about how many cases there are either here or elsewhere. I suspect that the police investigation into who opened what bottle of wine and when will result in nothing very much because no one is any longer paying attention.

But politics does not stop. It may be tasteless to link events in Ukraine with Scotland’s political situation, but events there will have long term consequences for the debate here and everywhere else in Europe. Finland and Sweden are debating whether they ought to join NATO not out of parochialism or lack of concern for Ukrainians, but because Russian actions and threats have changed the political and security situation in those countries. So too here.

Scotland is far away from both Russia and Ukraine. The SNP used this to take a semi-pacifist attitude to our security. For decades it opposed NATO membership and thought that an independent Scotland could get away with token armed forces. It blamed England for the fact that Scottish soldiers died in such large numbers during the World Wars. If only we had been independent, we could have avoided involvement. Russia was no threat to Scotland.

But we are having to relearn that European security requires a coordinated, collective approach. Each country needs to increase defence spending to the point where we can deter aggression not merely by means of nuclear weapons, but by means of conventional weapons too. Failure to compete on a conventional battlefield leaves the alternative of surrender or nuclear escalation. This all makes token armies, plus making Britain’s nuclear submarines homeless, look foolhardy.

The idea that Scotland would have been safer today if we had voted for independence in 2014 and sent the English submarines homeless to think again is to think that if Putin used nuclear weapons Scotland somehow would be spared.

At a time when each piece of the European security puzzle is vital to the defence of every other piece, the destruction of the British armed forces because Scots don’t like Tories and are obsessed with wars from the Middle Ages is unlikely to be comprehensible to people who are nearer to Ukraine than we are.

We were supposed to wait until the end of the pandemic and then add a year before having a second independence referendum. That already looked unlikely because of the economic consequences of Covid. How likely is it now after the largest war in Europe since 1945?

So, at some point the SNP are going to have to admit that there won’t be another referendum next year. They might pretend that it will happen the year after that, or the year after that, but the SNP’s credibility about everything will in time be destroyed by promises that it never keeps about a referendum.

The sanctions we have rightly imposed on Russia are already devastating the Russian economy. The hope is that they lead to regime change. If a new Russian leader seeks peace, then it may be possible to restore Ukraine to its full borders, meaning that separatists in Crimea and the Donbas would have to give up their independence from Ukraine. This looked impossible prior to the present conflict, but it may well be that Ukrainian territorial integrity becomes the condition for normalisation of relations with Russia.

This would have a profound effect on how the world views secession movements and the attempt to redraw international boundaries. If Ukraine has a right to territorial integrity, then obviously so does everyone else in Europe. Separatist movements whether in Catalonia, Flanders, Crimea, the Donbas or Scotland are going to be viewed with suspicion by the international community. It was after all the attempt by Russia to recognise separatists in Luhansk and Donetsk that sparked the present conflict.

Scottish independence always depended on the cooperation of both the United Kingdom and the international community. The former UK had to be generous to Scotland in maintaining the present trade, border and rights arrangements so that Scots could continue to live and work in the former UK with minimal barriers. The international community would only ever support Scottish independence if the breakup of the UK was friendly. Otherwise, Scotland would struggle to join NATO, the EU or anything else.

If the SNP had won in 2014 then both the former UK and the world in general would have done their best to make Scottish independence work, but the conditions that existed in 2014 do not exist now. Then we could just about pretend that the Cold War was a distant memory and that British armed forces and nuclear weapons did not matter. But Scotland’s grievance looks too flimsy to be indulged by anyone in 2022.

Our grounds for separation are insubstantial. Scotland may sometimes vote differently from the UK as a whole, but this is a feature of every democracy and would be a feature of Scotland if it were independent. We are fortunate to have free and fair elections at all.

Scottish nationalists look back to wars between Scotland and England and to a time when both were independent. But it is just this focus on ancient history that is looking ever more dubious when Putin uses that same ancient history to justify his shelling of cities. Every country in Europe is made up of places that once were independent or once were joined together. If we judged who owns what now by who owned it during the past 1000 years then there would be potential conflicts all over Europe.

Digging up Medieval history or re-enacting a Jacobite rebellion while marching in Scotland looked quaint and harmless until Putin also started digging around in the same cesspit. Best not to dig at all, because you will very likely find something unpleasant that smells.

Gradually politics will re-emerge from the shade that has been cast by the present conflict, but it will find the circumstances quite different. We will have less to spend as sanctions will damage us too. We will change our priorities from what we want to what we need to do. We will cease to think about trivia like parties and Downing Street or indeed Scottish independence. That is a battle that should be consigned to ancient history (1314 and 2014) just like the battles between the princes of Kievan Rus.