SCOTLAND’S next independence referendum – when it comes – will be fought on a very different political terrain from 2014. Specifically, defence and security questions will loom much larger in any second referendum.

Back in 2012, the SNP conference vote to reverse a long-standing opposition to Nato membership effectively neutralised the security question as an issue in the rabid Unionist media. But today, with grave new international tensions emerging between the west and Russia and China, the independence movement is confronted by geopolitics at its most dangerous. The indy camp will be forced to take sides – and that could split the movement, with disastrous consequences.

It is important to emphasise that the SNP’s switch to a pro-Nato stance in 2012 was a deliberate device to park the issue of international military entanglements, rather than a heartfelt embracing of the US-dominated alliance.

Cynical or not, this ploy was admirably effective in blunting attempts by Labour’s Atlanticist stooges – think former Nato boss George Robertson – from muddying the referendum debate by presenting the SNP as peaceniks bent on undermining western security. As a result, the first independence referendum was fought primarily on economic issues.

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That said, we should note that the 2014 referendum also took place with the disastrous consequences of the illegal US-Blairite invasion of Iraq still fresh in the public mind in Scotland. This anti-war mood was strong in the housing schemes where the Yes vote predominated. That proved a more effective antidote to Labour’s Atlanticist fantasies than the SNP’s sudden and unconvincing embracing of the Nato alliance. As a result, continued SNP opposition to nuclear weapons on Scottish soil was a vote-winner in 2014.

Today, however, the

post-referendum generation of SNP leaders – including defence supremo Stewart McDonald and foreign affairs spokesperson Alyn Smith – is showing signs not just of embracing Nato membership wholeheartedly, but of re-positioning an independent Scotland as a strategic player in any new Cold War with Putin’s Russia and Xi’s China. Allied to the SNP’s militant support for rejoining the EU, this shift of emphasis marks a sharp break with the independence movement’s traditional non-aligned, unilateralist comfort zone.

McDonald and Smith are quick to defend their policy turn by pointing to the dangerous adventurism of the Putin regime in the Baltic, Georgia, Crimea and now Ukraine. For the record, the Kremlin is run by a bunch of criminal gangsters (literally so) and as I write there are 100,000 Russian troops “on manoeuvres” on the Ukrainian border.

Not to mention the fact that Putin’s fellow dictator, the odious Alexander Lukashenko, is busy using desperate immigrants from the Middle East as bargaining chips in his bid to force the EU to reduce sanctions on Belarus.

No-one is arguing that there are not dangerous tensions in Eastern Europe, or that these can be ignored in any upcoming independence referendum. The specific issue is whether or not the SNP leadership tries to win international approval by adopting an excessively belligerent, pro-Nato stance – to the point of becoming a major cheerleader for the new Cold War. This appears to be the political trajectory of both Stewart McDonald and Alyn Smith.

The dangers in the McDonald-Smith approach are many. First, giving uncritical support to Nato’s belligerent response to Putin’s adventures risks undermining the SNP’s traditional opposition to nuclear weapons on Scottish soil. I do not accuse McDonald or Smith of actually repudiating unilateralism – yet. But the more they offer unstinting military support for Nato – especially in the Baltic and Ukraine – they more they undermine their own case for expelling British nuclear submarines from the Clyde as fast as possible after independence.

CAN we really believe that Scottish defence minister McDonald or foreign secretary Smith would

fast-track the end of Faslane if there was an ongoing confrontation with the Kremlin in the Baltic?

Next, Scotland acting as Nato’s anti-Kremlin cheerleader blithely ignores the fact that Germany is primarily culpable in underwriting financially the Putin regime. Germany remains the major market for the gas exports that support Russia’s fragile economy.

And Berlin has supported Putin’s ongoing project of building of a second gas pipeline into the EU, enabling the Kremlin to bypass Ukraine and thus putting economic pressure on Kiev. The best way of containing Putin is not by sending the Scottish navy into the Baltic but by persuading Germany to stop funding the Russian exchequer.

The SNP’s new macho security position also embraces a more belligerent stance towards China – with party MPs at Westminster supporting Tory moves to impose sanctions on Chinese high-tech companies.

And Stewart McDonald publicly denounced Beijing for criticising Scottish politicians attending a provocative Taiwan Day event during COP26. Naively, McDonald (who spoke at the event) told Beijing not to interfere “with the work of democratically elected politicians in Scotland or the government of Taiwan”.

The point is not just that McDonald’s “warning” to China comes across as a bit pathetic. Rather, he seems totally ignorant of the history behind China’s legitimate claim to Taiwan.

The island is Chinese territory but was seized by the defeated nationalist regime of Chiang Kai-shek in 1949. Thereafter, Chiang was kept in power by American military might (including the threat of nuclear war) while Taiwan was prepared as a base to launch an invasion of the mainland to overthrow the communist government of Mao Zedong.

The vast majority of Chinese view Taiwan as the last part of the national territory remaining to be recovered, after centuries of foreign domination. For an SNP spokesperson to be ignorant of the facts of Chinese history in this respect seems quixotic – if not downright risky for future Sino-Scottish relations.

Unless, of course, Mr McDonald is more concerned with supporting America’s plans to “contain” Beijing than with pursuing the self-interest of the Scottish nation. Stewart McDonald is hazarding Scotland’s future room for diplomatic and economic manoeuvre as an independent nation by kowtowing to the White House, in the hope of a few diplomatic crumbs from an increasingly wobbly Biden administration.

I am not arguing for a neutral Scotland but I think there remains much to be said for the traditional non-aligned stance of the independence movement.

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Throwing Scotland’s lot in with whoever is running the White House or dominating the EU may have superficial attractions for a small nation seeking independence. But the diplomatic wheel has a habit of turning quickly. Basing the case for independence on short-lived tactical alliances has all the potential to go horribly wrong.

Scottish independence should mean precisely that: putting the needs and interests of Scotland’s people first and foremost. Otherwise, we end up substituting the White House for Westminster, or the European Commission for Whitehall.

The danger implicit in the policy direction instituted by Messers McDonald and Smith is that Scotland ends up being a bit player in the politics of the great powers. It might look pragmatic and “grown up” to be Nato’s attack dog against Moscow and Beijing, but nothing could be further from the truth. Rather, we are in danger of being Nato’s yapping poodle.

It is obvious that the world has entered a dangerous new era of big power confrontation. But that only reinforces the need for an independent Scotland to chart its own diplomatic course.