24/10/2012 09:08 BST | Updated 23/12/2012 05:12 GMT

Salmond's Choice

In short, does he choose the chance of victory but risk his party, or privately concede the result in order to guarantee the unity of his base. It is a difficult judgement call that only he can make - but too many more half-measures and he may end up with the worst of both options, and the comforts of neither.

NATO is a problematic issue for the SNP. On the one hand, the leadership believe that opposition to the alliance was a policy adopted in the depths of opposition and hurts the party's credibility - and the credibility of the independent Scotland it hopes to build. On the other, a large section of the SNP's base and membership are atavistically opposed to nuclear weapons and the first-strike military alliance based thereon.

Alex Salmond tried to resolve this at the SNP's recent conference, where after a heated debate a motion overturning the party's three-decade hostility to NATO was overturned. Well, sort of.

As a result, two SNP MSPs have resigned the party whip. John Finnie, an SNP member since the age of 16 and Jean Urquhart, a CND activist, have announced their intention to sit in the company of Margo MacDonald as Independent Nationalists. Presumably, their defections will have been accompanied by lower-profile departures further down the party hierarchy and amongst the membership.

Is that the end of it, then? Probably not, because the leadership only passed a half-measure through the conference. For reasons of either high principle or canny calculation, they realised that they would not be able to push the party into reversing its position on the actual nuclear weapons themselves. So they tried instead to separate nuclear weapons from NATO, a stance which both the defecting nationalists and incredulous unionists maintain is ridiculous.

So the question is, will Salmond be forced to confront the contradictions of the SNP's new policy before 2014? If the unionists have any sense, the answer should be yes. The entire point of going through all the pain of getting the policy passed was to strengthen the credibility of the SNP and an independent Scotland in the minds of the electorate: if the voters come to be convinced that the policy doesn't stack up before the dash-to-the-finish-line mania of the short campaign, Salmond will have no option but to revisit it.

What does he do then?

If he backs down, then this painful party conference will turn into a retrospective joke, and any credit the party got for it will turn about with a vengeance. It will look like a shambles - a party of protest in hoc to an out-of-touch membership and totally unprepared for power. Moreover, Mr Salmond's personal stock will be damaged - and the SNP has no more valuable asset in its possession.

Yet he pushes for a nuclear-weapon Scotland, the list of problems is longer still. For a start, nuclear weapons will inevitably be added to the Queen, the currency, 'Britishness' and all the rest on the ever-lengthening list of things Alex Salmond maintains won't change after independence, which is starting to be thrown back at him with increasing derision. There's also the bizarre fact that the SNP would simply be swapping London-commanded nukes for nukes under the control of Washington DC.

More seriously, he risks splitting his party in two. It might be that the white heat of the referendum campaign could hold it together, but post-result the party would likely disembowel itself. In the seemingly remote event of a separatist victory this would likely just be part of the necessary realignment of Scottish politics upon a post-British axis, and would probably see the unilateralist wing consigned to the fringes while the pro-NATO centre-right aligned with the Conservatives. But in the event of a defeat, we could see the most formidable nationalist political machine this country has seen since the departure of the Free State collapse in on itself.

So Salmond must consider carefully how much pain can he justify putting his party through. To over-simplify things for illustrative purposes, there are two basic ways to approach a campaign: compromise your core beliefs to try and build a majority coalition amongst the electorate; or play to your base to fire up your troops and shore up your position.

Each of these has its downsides. The first involves angering activists, risking splits and potentially losing sight of your principles in incessant pursuit of favourable polling, but offers the chance of power. The latter involves conceding the election before you've fought it, but allows you to deepen your existing coalition, build up your machine, and fight harder for more limited but realistic goals. When it comes to Scottish elections, the SNP have proved very good at the former.

We're a fair way from the referendum yet, but polling on independence has been relatively static for decades (and does not correlate at all with the rise of the SNP as a governmental party) and now the No side is cranking into action to oppose it, separatism's vote share is in steady decline. Yet the harsh compromises of a whole-hearted bid for a winning electoral majority are normally only assuaged by victory - see how even record gains in seats have left many Conservatives grumbling about Cameron due to falling short of an overall majority, or Labour appearing liberated by 2010 to repudiate the hated, election-winning creed of Blairism.

So Alex has a very important judgement call to make: does he genuinely think he can win? When there's no press or public to woo, no opponents to fight, no limelight to steal, when it's just him and the man in the mirror - does he think there is a realistic prospect of 2014 being the year Scotland votes to dissolve her three-century-old union with the rest of the country? If not, fighting as though he does risks doing immense damage to his movement for nothing.

There are some who think Salmond never really wanted a referendum at all, but Cameron called his bluff. Nobody can know that for sure, but his long pursuit of the notorious 'third option' might give us a clue.

Devo-max would have allowed Alex relative liberty to play to his base, strengthening the SNP machine and their hold on the popular consciousness whilst scoring a relatively easy victory that would happily complicate Westminster/Holyrood relations and likely prevent a ringing endorsement of the union in the result. He could have walked away with a win, in charge of a united party that had tasted blood, and merrily continued to project the inevitability of independence whilst blaming the 2014 'defeat' on unionist perfidy.

That option is lost to him now, and the compromises required to win might shatter his party if they don't. Does he risk destroying the SNP by going for broke in pursuit of victory in 2014, or try to mitigate the damage defeat does to the nationalist cause? Does he project an independent Scotland as the woad-and-socialist nirvana of his activists' imaginations, or disabuse them with a dull, competently run, 'normal' Scotland that the electorate find credible, even appealing?

In short, does he choose the chance of victory but risk his party, or privately concede the result in order to guarantee the unity of his base. It is a difficult judgement call that only he can make - but too many more half-measures and he may end up with the worst of both options, and the comforts of neither.