SINCE the Holyrood election last year, when it became clear that there was a sizeable gap between votes for SNP candidates and support for independence, the Nationalists have been faced with the problem of how to ensure the "once-in-a-generation opportunity" to hold a referendum on independence produced the result they want.
The latest poll, published yesterday, in which 58% said they would vote No in the referendum, confirmed the steady shift against independence seen over the summer. The indications from other surveys are that a majority of people want Scotland to remain in Nato. Membership of the nuclear defence alliance, however, would be a reversal of what has been a totemic policy for the SNP since 1981.
For delegates to this year's conference, the resolution by Angus Robertson, the party's defence spokesman, to overturn that stance will be a watershed. A commitment to remove nuclear weapons from Scotland is the one policy, apart from those on the constitution, that distinguishes the SNP from other parties and, for many members, a key reason for supporting independence. Withdrawal from Nato has been an interlinked policy for a generation.
This afternoon Mr Robertson's motion will provoke impassioned opposition but debate about an independent Scotland being a member of Nato will be squeezed into a session on resolutions beginning at 3pm and ending before an address by Culture and External Affairs Secretary Fiona Hyslop at 4.45pm. It seems likely to result in a swift policy change to embrace Nato membership in tandem with the removal of Trident, as desired by Alex Salmond and senior figures in the party. They are opposed by almost one-third of MSPs and a significant section of grassroots membership, however, which risks stoking a sense of betrayal among some of the SNP's most committed members. It will be a severe test for a party that, of necessity, constitutes a broad range of opinion in the common cause of independence. Much of Mr Salmond's success has been down to ensuring disparate opinions do not become divisive. The importance of avoiding a damaging split in advance of the referendum is obvious but failure to fully debate this most controversial of issues could provoke a sense of unfinished business among voters in general. Post-independence defence policy is a major concern for the third of Scots not committed to either independence or the status quo. Yet vital questions raised by the debate so far remain unresolved. Most notable among them is whether an independent Scotland would be accepted as a Nato member if it despatched the nuclear arsenal. Equally important for those opposed to nuclear weapons is the corollary of whether membership of the nuclear alliance would impede the removal of nuclear weapons from Scottish territory.
The SNP conference cannot be expected to provide all the answers immediately. But as a party that is asking the Scottish people for a mandate to move into uncharted territory, it should have the confidence and the boldness to allow full and frank debate at its own conference.
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