Shifting the SNP on Foreign Policy

‘Bairns, not Bombs’ was a rallying cry for many independence supporters during the 2014 referendum, but many campaigners on the left feel this is undermined by the Scottish National Party’s NATO commitments. Lewis Akers argues Sturgeon’s government has slowly but surely shifted on foreign policy but that there’s scope for activists in and out the party to bring about change…

Whatever our qualms about the Growth Commission and other 'pro-business' proposals, those of us on the pro-independence left tend to at least take solace in the SNP's broadly progressive international outlook. Over the past ten years, this has become more developed and pronounced, with Foreign Affairs spokesperson Stephen Gethins going as far as saying ethics should be at the heart of foreign policy. Rhetoric or not, the SNP appears to hold to admirable key pillars that even Corbyn-led Labour does not, and even the party's most staunch leftist critics would struggle to disagree with them.

The SNP's track record on foreign policy has long been framed as positive and internationalist. Their position is to increase foreign aid, oppose national service, keep the human rights act, cut down military numbers and, of course, dismantle our monstrous trident nuclear weapon systems. But these policies haven't emerged in a vacuum: some stem from firmly held principles, some from an instinctual nationalist antipathy towards any unwanted programme imposed from our neighbours, and others from various tactical calculations.

The big issue that shone light on the SNP's foreign policy in the 2000s was its firm opposition to the Iraq War, which juxtaposed them with the Labour Party at the time (although not with Charles Kennedy's Liberal Democrats or Labour objectors such as Tony Benn and Jeremy Corbyn). At a time when Scottish public opinion was on one side of a ravine and the party that had long represented them was on the other, the SNP was able to position itself on the right side of history. This was only bolstered by the party's long-held opposition to NATO military alliance.

Since the SNP's first majority win in 2011, though, there's been a clear downward slide. In 2012, opposition to NATO was dropped at the party's conference, leading to two leading figures on the SNP's anti-militaristic wing leaving the party: John Finnie, now a Greens MSP, and Jean Urquhart, who joined RISE. As Finnie put it: “You vote to join Nato, you will not get rid of trident. You vote to join Nato and there will be pressure and there will be phone calls to this man and his deputy not to be involved in CND, not to support the Palestinians and similar causes around the globe”. For the left, it's a slippery slope. The only visible issue on this issue within the party is from the campaign group Neutral Scotland.

Today, there are signs this downward trajectory has continued. Nicola Sturgeon shamelessly shared articles on Twitter in the summer linking to war criminal Henry Kissinger, the man who was integral in forming some of the most gory periods of American foreign policy, from bombings in neutral Cambodia to propping up dictatorships and coups in Latin America. She also shared an article by Madeleine Albright, the Secretary of State who was partially responsible for the deaths of half a million children in Iraq. These are actions that still have huge ramifications to this day and are indicative of an imperialist western mindset. If Sturgeon is trying to enforce an image of herself as an interventionist “liberal” leader in the mould of Blair, Clinton or Macron, this makes sense, but that's a departure from the image of a bleeding heart social democratic she previously projected.

However, the move that drew my attention to this subject was actually a decision by Sturgeon's deputy, John Swinney, to remove a teaching resource about the Israel-Palestine conflicts from a school intranet system called GLOW. On the surface this may not seem as pressing an issue, for human rights advocates on the left things like this matter. For me and many others, campaigning on the injustices faced by the Palestinian people was along with the independence referendum a key moment in my political radicalisation.

It's perhaps not so easy for the SNP to take bold public stances on every geopolitical issue, but on Palestine we rightfully should expect better. Not only does Swinney's decision deprive Scottish school pupils of knowledge about one of the longest running conflicts in modern history, but it also reflects a worrying shift on this issue at the highest level. CommonSpace reporters found pro-Israeli groups were being given “privileged access” to the Scottish Government in regards to this policy. It's a massive blow to the supposedly radical post-referendum consensus-based politics we were meant to be living through.

Such shifts may seem microcosmic, but they're entangled amid a context of the SNP increasingly tacking right on major issues of foreign policy. From shifting their rhetoric around the bombing of Syria to to parroting the UK government's paranoid line on all things Russia, the worry is that the party spearheading the Scottish independence movement are increasingly fearful of deviating from the West's long held militaristic consensus.

The context here is also important: the Growth Commission document essentially took the dreams of progressive post-independence Scotland, even a mildly Nordic social democratic one, and buried them in favour of a pro-business nightmare. In the same year, we've seen John Swinney undermind collective bargaining in regards to the teacher's pay deal and a vocal core of SNP activists attacking workers during the Equal Pay Strike.

The task for socialists, whether inside or outside the SNP, is clear: there's been a sea change and battles on both home affairs and foreign affairs are linked. We need to keep pressure on the Scottish Government and the SNP's wider base to put internationalism and peace at the very top of their ethical demands. We need to unite with other progressives from across the UK to put an end to war, nuclear weapons and support for Israel's illegal occupation. Regardless of whether we voted Yes or No in 2014, across the left we're united in a belief that another Scotland is possible. Let's make the SNP top brass see sense: when it comes to the big issues facing our world, they can be on the right side of history.