The Point
Last updated: 27 June 2022. sky thinking for an open and diverse left

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Saying no to Blandland - an interview with Independent MSP John Finnie

In the week of the extremely successful first national conference of the Radical Independence movement, Point editor Steve Arnott interviewed independent MSP John Finnie about NATO, democracy, the Yes campaign and the prospects for re-alignment on the Scottish Left. John recently resigned from the SNP over its decision to support continued membership of NATO post-independence.


John, you were an active member of the SNP for a very long time, serving not only as an MSP, but previously as group leader of the SNP in Highland Council. It must have been a difficult decision for both yourself and Jean Urquhart to leave the party of government in the run up to the Scottish Independence referendum. Can you guide us through your thought processes at the time?

I first became aware of the proposal to try and change the Party’s opposition to NATO membership at a meeting with Angus Robertson, the Party's Westminster Leader, several months before our Annual Conference.

I subsequently wrote Angus detailing my concerns and indicating that were the policy to change I would find it challenging to remain in the Party.

The First Minister’s television interview in July during which he indicated his support for NATO membership was a significant point in the debate.  From that point on some who were uncomfortable with membership of NATO felt the need to ‘back the Leader’ so, from that point on, I used the social media, spoke at meetings and did radio and television interviews to encourage support to retain our long-standing opposition to NATO.

The Conference debate was about a ‘defence’ policy and not simply about NATO. It has been lauded as an example of ‘good old-fashioned conference debate’ and, whilst I understand that view, I thought it was a poor debate, dominated by the NATO issue.  Not many have noticed that, as a result of that vote, the SNP is now committed to spending a greater percentage of GDP, post-independence, on non-nuclear defence than the UK!

I joined the SNP as a 16 year old and leaving the Party was a decision taken after months of consideration and done in a manner to minimise any ill-feeling.  I could never support membership of a first-strike nuclear alliance and I will continue to fight for a socially just, peaceful, nuclear free Scottish republic.        

There has been some criticism of the SNP recently from others in the independence fight for being reactive to the unionist agenda and getting bogged down in answering detailed questions that would in fact be a matter for the first Scottish Government elected post-independence in 2016. Do you have any sympathy with that view and how do you see the independence referendum campaign proceeding from here?

Yes, I have a great deal of sympathy for the view that the SNP is 'fighting on the unionists' ground', constantly feeling the need to respond to the minutia of queries rather than rightly acknowledge the role the Scottish public can, and will, play post-independence.  I know the SNP don’t consider they have a monopoly of the independence agenda and it's in the interests of everyone interested in securing a 'Yes' vote to ensure that the 'Yes' campaign is as broad a coalition as there can be.

That broad coalition must articulate the many different independent Scotland’s there can be.  If the only model out there is the SNP one, then many seeking a more radical future will rightly feel left out.  Politics is about participation and priorities and the independence debate must excite folk and motivate greater participation than presently exists.

Direct democracy seems a very good way of taking major decisions about the future direction of a country. Do you think it would be a good idea to separate the independence debate from potential distractions about in or out of NATO, in or out of Europe, a monarchy or a republic, by simply promising the Scottish people a referendum on these issues post independence?

Whilst understanding what prompts such a question, I don't think it would be fair to seek to persuade people to vote for independence and not explain that, whilst that means control over matters such as welfare, foreign affairs and defence that we must postpone any debate about the head of state, the format of a constitution, continued membership of NATO and the EU until after independence.  We must say 'vote for independence, gain control of those important areas affecting your lives, AND make the 2016 election one where all the participants lay out how they see the future’.  As a republican, more of the same doesn't interest me and I would love a vibrant debate around what a constitution should look like.  For instance, the Mexican constitution forbids the country participating in wars of aggression and I'd like to see that included for starters.  

It's not the first time you've sacrificed influence for principle,arguably. As I recall when you were leader of the SNP group in Highland Council you took the group into opposition rather than be part of the ruling coalition's cost cutting and privatisation agenda. There are many on the left who think the current Scottish Government could be doing more to protect the public against Westminster Coalition austerity agenda. What's your view on that?

The reasons for leaving the Administration were many and complex with my personal aversion to privatisation well documented.  I have long been concerned about how vital public services have been auctioned off to the lowest bidder to make profit.  The growth of Arms Length Organisations across Scotland has to be halted and reversed.  In fairness, I think any Scottish Government would struggle to protect our valued public services from the scale of cuts imposed by Westminster.  Whilst in the Party, I spoke with Cabinet Secretaries about the possibility of doing something to help a group of public sector employees facing an attack on their pensions. Perhaps understandably they felt it would prove challenging to do that for one group but not another and that challenge was further compounded by Danny Alexander, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury’s threat to remove from the Scottish budget a sum equivalent to any additional contributions the Scottish Government failed to deduct.  A further reason, if any were needed, for Scotland to take full control of its welfare and pensions systems.  

Do you think there could be useful and viable realignment of the left in Scotland if the independence referendum is won?

WHEN the referendum is won, realignment is certainly desirable and hopefully possible. Certainly, with independence secured, the raison d’être of the SNP will be gone and I would hope former colleagues would cause a major realignment within that Party, or join with like-minds to work for causes we hold dear.  I think political parties underestimate the public’s willingness to consider radical alternatives to the social injustice that pervades every part of British life.  The British state has always looked after its own; the bankers, the generals, the arms dealers, powerful countries, newspaper proprietors and private schools choosing inequality, privilege and war ahead of the social justice and peace most folk in Scotland want.

Given the predominantly unionist media, the Yes Scotland campaign will have to play a blinder if independence is to be won. How do you see that campaign developing, both locally and nationally? 

Certainly for the foreseeable future, supporters of independence can forget any support from the media.  In reality, I would settle for accurate reporting.  For instance, given the Scottish Government’s Government Expenditure Revenue Scotland  figures are accepted by HM Treasury, it should be readily accepted that the economic case for independence is made so the debate can move on.

Both locally and nationally, I would like to see greater attempts to ensure that everyone involved with the ‘Yes’ campaign seeks to engage in debate with supporters of the status quo and that could mean a welcome return to public meetings across the Highlands and Islands.  People want to understand their options and we must get unionists to explain what they see as the benefits of remaining in a state whose welfare reforms attack the most vulnerable, whose leaders are from an unrepresentative and out of touch elite, and whose proponents are the press who have broken the law and disregard common decency.  This campaign has to move from personalities to policies.  Celebrities and business leaders have their place, however, at the end of the day they only have one vote so, we must get out on the streets, knock at the doors and be available to answer the many queries our fellow citizens have as they struggle to deal with cuts imposed from an out of touch regime in London.

Finally, John, if you were asked to sum up the three most important things that can deliver self-government to the Scottish people, what would those be?

Raising the quality of the whole debate; Listening to people so that our responses and aspirations match their needs - and being bold; we won’t motivate the public by offering more of the same, an independent Blandland. The left must offer a radical alternative to bring about a fairer, environmentally-conscious and peaceful independent republic and I’m sure that working together we will achieve that.  


Other articles by Steve Arnott in The Point can be found here

External links:

Bella Caledonia

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Green Left


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Richard Dawkins

Scottish Left Review

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