Stewart McDonald: "We could have the first chance in British history to get rid of nuclear weapons. We'd be mad not to take it"
Opposition to nuclear weapons is fundamental to the Scottish independence movement, Stewart McDonald says. With the country facing a possible general election that could put a lifelong unilateralist in Number Ten, the SNP’s defence spokesperson believes his party has an historic opportunity. He talks to James Millar
You could call it research. As I meet Stewart McDonald in the centre of Glasgow, he’s on his way to the riverside complex where the SNP will host their annual party conference this week. But rather than making sure the autocues are working or the snacks have been stocked, the Glasgow South MP is going to attend a Shania Twain concert. And in the words of the country music megastar’s recent hit: ‘Life’s about to get good’ for McDonald as he prepares to welcome delegates back to his city. “This is the city in which the SNP was founded,” he states. “It’s great to welcome members to my city, it’s good fun, folk always enjoy it.”
But there’s always a certain frisson about an SNP conference in Glasgow, for just a few miles away sits Faslane, home to the UK’s fleet of nuclear submarines armed with weapons the party wants off Scottish soil and out of Scottish waters, but which, for now, they can do nothing about.
“It’s a driving thread, through not just the SNP but the independence movement, to rid ourselves of nuclear weapons,” McDonald, the SNP’s defence spokesperson, explains. “Historically the anti-nuclear movement has grown up with the SNP and the SNP has grown up with the anti-nuclear movement. It’s locked in to our political philosophy the same way independence is.”
And yet our febrile political times could put the future of Trident on the table without the need for an independence vote.
It’s entirely plausible that there could be a general election soon which returns Labour as the largest party, relying on support from the SNP to govern.
And while Labour’s official position remains to renew Trident, the party’s leader is no fan. A life-long unilateralist, Jeremy Corbyn joined the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament aged 15, and serves as the group’s vice-president.
McDonald believes this presents an historic opportunity – and one the SNP must take with both hands. “I hope that if Jeremy’s in the position to form a government, perhaps with an arrangement with the Scottish National Party, then that [scrapping Trident] should be one of the key planks of any discussion that we have. Because Corbyn agrees with us on this. He has a long and honourable history of agreeing with us on this.
“We’d ultimately have an opportunity, the first opportunity that would have presented itself in British history, for Britain to get rid of nuclear weapons. We would be mad, and Jeremy Corbyn would be mad, not to grab that opportunity.”
McDonald says he wants the issue to be high on the list of priorities for those talks. With the polling suggesting the Scottish people would still not back independence in a second referendum, would it make sense for the SNP to prioritise removing the UK’s nuclear weapons in any post-election talks? McDonald strongly rejects that logic. “What a load of defeatist rubbish. Even a pessimistic person would have to accept that when you won 45% for independence only four years ago it’s entirely within winning distance.
“On the issue of nuclear weapons of course there has to be a serious discussion that says, ‘you want to get rid of them, we want to get rid of them, let’s work out a way we can make that happen’.”
Would it be a red line? “The red lines will be decided by the First Minister and it’s entirely sensible that the First Minister is able to set those red lines. But knowing the First Minister as I do, as a lifelong anti-nuclear campaigner – in fact I think she joined the CND before she joined the SNP – that’s going to be pretty high up on her agenda. Of course it is.”
McDonald’s opposition to Trident centres not just on a philosophical point, but on the huge cost of the programme at a time when the country is facing a series of security threats. “The threats now are from terrorist organisations, cyber, the type of attack we saw in Salisbury. We’re not going to use nuclear weapons against any of those,” he says.
He has little time for his opposite number in government, Gavin Williamson, particularly after the Defence Secretary responded to Russia’s attempt to assassinate a former agent on British soil by telling Putin’s regime to “shut up and go away”, sparking comparisons with the bumbling and naïve character Private Pike from Dad’s Army. “I think he’s out of his depth,” McDonald says. “There’s times I’ve been in the chamber and he tries to be Churchillian and it’s a bit toe-curling.”
McDonald has also clashed with the Defence Secretary over the impact of the Scottish government’s new tax rates on Armed Forces personnel stationed north of the Border. After the SNP introduced tax changes that would require those earning over £26k to pay more, Williamson announced an annual payment to around 8,000 troops in Scotland to ensure they are not left worse off than their counterparts elsewhere in the UK. The Scottish Tories chalked it up as a lobbying victory. But McDonald is dismissive. “Look, it was a lesson in smoke and mirrors,” he says. “The Scottish Government has got the power to set tax rates and it should be free to do that as it wishes. What we’ve done in terms of how this affects the armed forces is actually give the lowest paid in the armed forces a tax cut. Now I accept it’s not that much, but they pay less in tax than their counterparts in the rest of the UK. And is it fair to say that the higher paid officers, some of whom are on in excess of £60,000, some are earning in excess of an MPs salary, will pay more? Yes, they’ll pay more, of course they’ll pay more.”
McDonald himself gained plaudits for his reaction to the Salisbury incident, broadly backing the UK government’s response, while Labour were more equivocal.
But the increasing tension with the Kremlin hasn’t stopped some of his colleagues appearing on Russian propaganda channel Russia Today, despite Westminster leader Ian Blackford calling for a boycott.
“It’s not a good look for anyone to be involved in Russia Today,” says McDonald. “But the idea that we’d impose a ban on people appearing on the channel, that strikes me as fundamentally illiberal position to take. I think it’s much better that we understand what Russia Today is, we understand its purpose, we understand what channels like Russia Today and Sputnik do – which is they give voice to Holocaust deniers, dangerous conspiracy theorists and all kinds of cranks, which really I don’t want my party to be associated with.”
One figure who can still be found on Russia Today is former First Minister Alex Salmond, whose regular show on the channel has come under intense scrutiny. Last month the Prime Minister said Salmond risked becoming a “propaganda tool” for the Putin regime. But the former SNP leader will be missing from the party’s conference this year having quit in order to fight allegations of sexual impropriety. Will he be conspicuous by his absence? “The party is bigger than any one man even if that man is a monumental figure like Alex Salmond, the first nationalist First Minister,” he says. “We’re in a position where we don’t know what’s happened. Allegations have been made, a process has to be gone through, it would be an unhelpful distraction for anybody to get bogged down in that at conference.”
One topic delegates will discuss at conference is, of course, independence. “There’s going to be the inevitable ‘will she or won’t she’ as far as an independence referendum is concerned,” McDonald concedes. “My own feeling from talking to party members is that people trust the First Minister to make the right call.”
That trust has been tested since Sturgeon made the wrong call in spring 2017, announcing she was putting the wheels in motion to hold another poll only to hit the electoral buffers at the ensuing general election.
Yet there is some urgency about the issue given Scotland will leave the EU next spring despite a two-thirds vote to remain in 2016.
The lack of interest in a second EU referendum among the SNP has raised eyebrows. A so-called ‘People’s Vote’ may be the only hope of halting Brexit. “If Scotland finds itself in the same position again – if we vote to stay and others vote to leave – then what’s the point?” queries McDonald.
He would want to see safeguards in place ahead of any second vote – perhaps a stipulation that a majority of the UK’s constituent nations would have to vote to leave for that to happen. But given Scotland and Northern Ireland seem unlikely to switch support to Leave, is that just setting up a constitutional crisis? “I don’t see what would be a constitutional crisis about respecting the constituent parts of the UK. After all that was the mantra of the independence referendum from the unionist side, that the constituent parts of the UK would be respected and would be equal partners. The dogs in the street can see Scotland isn’t an equal partner in the UK. Neither is Wales, neither is Northern Ireland.”
So will Sturgeon call indyref2? McDonald is giving nothing away. “I’m not really fussed when she announces it. I care about getting it right rather than getting it quickly,” he replies.
“My own sense is that we need to be a bit clearer on what Brexit’s going to look like. I think if the public have got any sense that this has been rushed or even hijacked they won’t thank us for it.”
And so, don’t be surprised if come next year’s conference the SNP are still swithering over whether to call the next independence referendum. The fear remains that they could get the same result as in 2014, which would surely kill the issue for good. The words Stewart McDonald wants to hear from Shania but not from the Scottish public are ‘That Don’t Impress Me Much’.