Nicola Sturgeon … ‘maybe she is hoping to appeal to Scots who still believe in strong defence’. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod for the Guardian
Nicola Sturgeon’s aides have been quick to point out that she has not given her agreement to British airstrikes in Syria after the Scottish National party leader said she’d be prepared to listen to David Cameron’s case. In the BBC interview in which she indicated her preparedness to “listen” to the prime minister on military intervention, she also said that she “remained unconvinced” about the legality of such an action.
Nevertheless, her remarks indicate a striking change in rhetoric. In her speech to the SNP conference only last month, Sturgeon said that UK airstrikes would “simply add to already unimaginable human suffering”, and that “the SNP will oppose UK airstrikes on Syria”. No ifs or buts.
It seems hard to reconcile that with an apparent willingness to contemplate bombing Islamic State now. Really, there is very little middle ground on this issue: you either support military intervention or you don’t.
Sturgeon’s predecessor as SNP leader, Alex Salmond – who remains the party foreign affairs spokesman in Westminster – has been unequivocal. “There should be no more futile military interventions by the UK,” he said last month. “No more Afghanistans with no exit strategies, no more Libyas.”
Sturgeon’s BBC interview led to a frisson of alarm on social media, where the SNP has traditionally received much of its support. There were expressions of dismay and disappointment. “It will haunt her,” said one Twitter post.
As well it might. Active support for airstrikes by the first minister would cause a huge division in the wider independence movement. David Cameron has made clear that he would not see a United Nations resolution as a precondition for military action. It could spell the end of the broad alliance that carried the SNP to its extraordinary landslide in the May general election.
Under Alex Salmond, the SNP consolidated its hold on Scottish politics through its resolute opposition to “illegal wars” such as the invasion of Iraq in 2003, which was widely condemned in Scotland.
There is a long history of SNP leaders opposing British military involvement, almost as a matter of course. During the Kosovo crisis in 1999, the then leader Salmond condemned British participation in the Nato bombing of Serbia as “unpardonable folly”, even though it was ostensibly an attempt to end ethnic cleansing by Slobodan Miloševi?. The Labour foreign secretary, Robin Cook, responded that Salmond had made himself “the toast of Belgrade”.
Some believe Salmond’s remark damaged the SNP’s showing in the first Scottish parliamentary elections later that year. Clearly, Sturgeon is choosing her words more carefully this time, and may be seeking to alter the image of the SNP as a pacifist party.
This interview marked her first anniversary as party leader, and she indicated that her response to terrorism may not always be to turn the other cheek. The Paris attacks may have been a political game changer in Scotland, as in England.
Scotland is not exactly a pacifist country. Salmond calls the Scots a ‘martial race’ who have never been shy of a fight
Scotland is not exactly a pacifist country, indeed Salmond calls the Scots a “martial race” who have never been shy of a fight. A Glasgow airport baggage handler, John Smeaton, became a national hero in 2007 when he grappled with terrorists attempting to detonate a car bomb at the airport terminal. “This is Glasgow,” Smeaton said. “We’ll set aboot ye”. He later stood as a candidate for the Scottish parliament.
It is not even clear how many Scots are opposed to nuclear weapons as such, though there has been pretty clear opposition to renewing the Trident submarine-based system on the Clyde, as indicated in the most recent Herald poll.
But the SNP no longer has a monopoly on the Trident issue in Scotland. The Scottish Labour party voted overwhelmingly at its conference last month to oppose renewal of the Faslane-based weapons system, in defiance of UK Labour party policy. The SNP has sought to capitalise on this division by bringing forward an opposition day debate on renewal next week in the Commons.
In July, when Labour MPs in Westminster abstained on the welfare bill, it cause dismay and division within Scottish Labour. If the party’s MPs sit on their hands again next week, the SNP is hoping for another propaganda victory.
However, it may be that Sturgeon is now looking beyond Trident to her next electoral challenge: she wants to win another SNP landslide at the Scottish parliamentary elections in May. The SNP dominates Scottish politics, and the opinion polls suggest she is on course to deliver one. Indeed, Labour is braced to lose all its constituency seats in Holyrood.
But for political leaders with a sense of their own destiny there are always more votes to win, bigger landslides to deliver. Maybe she is hoping to appeal to Scots who still believe in strong defence – the Daily Telegraph columnist Alan Cochrane, who normally trades in anti-nationalist invective, praised the SNP leader for showing “real leadership” in being prepared to listen to Cameron. However, if Nicola Sturgeon is seeking to win on a new approach to British military intervention in the Middle East, it would be a landslide too far.