The timing of Salmond's initiative to abandon the SNP's opposition to NATO membership might have been picked straight out of the Tony Blair playbook.
There are Local Government elections on May 3rd. These elections are probably more important to the activist layer of all of the Parties than they are to the electorate who seem remarkably unengaged with the whole process.
Indeed, in advance of the event, the greater interest is in the advance spinning. The SNP claiming in the Sunday papers that the Labour vote is holding up; Labour launching their campaign this morning with the "concession" that the Nationalists will gain seats. Thus you frame the terms of discussion for the post election analysis, assuming that this is really what is important, rather than who might be in charge of running your local area for the next five years.
But there is something very important understood by the rank and file of all Parties in a pre election period: you don't show internal dissent when directly facing the enemy. And cynical leaderships know this to be a window of opportunity.
The SNP National Council is not until the beginning of June. Seven weeks away. If there is a view among the SNP Leadership clique that policy towards NATO needs to be changed then there is surely plenty of time AFTER May 3rd to float such an idea.
The very reason that this policy change is being floated at this time is because they have worked out that, no matter how furious many of their ground troops might be, equally they will not wish to show disloyalty (meaning actually loyalty to existing policy) in the run up to an election. And the hope is that after May 3rd, this idea having already been out there for three weeks, opponents then emerging will be easily dismissed as "too late to the Party". A silent congratulation card to Kevin Pringle is no doubt already on its way from Peter Mandelson.
But the problem is that this is not an initiative plucked from the quite brilliant, if utterly cynical, Labour politics of 1994-97. It is simply a reprise of the "we thought at the time were brilliant" internal Labour politics of 1983-87. It goes as far as internal Party dynamics will allow, but it does not go nearly as far as external political realities demand.
I keep banging on that it is impossible for the SNP to win an independence referendum. (and that, for that reason, a referendum will never take place, at least at the initiative of the SNP).
So far however, in the midst of all the various arguments I have deployed in pursuit of that conclusion, I have not even touched on the issue of US opinion and influence.
The SNP like to suggest that the only "foreign" country likely to have a view on the merits or otherwise of independence will be England. Thus desperate evidence is produced that, despite their own fiercely resisted separatist movements, Scottish Independence would be a matter of indifference to Spain and France while the very existence of Wales and Northern Ireland with something to contribute to the debate, is ignored to a point almost approaching arrogance. But most significantly of all, the potential intervention of the United States is simply wished away.
Now at this point I could dust down my Gramsci and depart on a lengthy treatise on the concept of hegemony. Suffice to say that, whether I like it or not, the United States of America enjoys a cultural, economic and political hegemony over almost all of the democratic world, and indeed a fair bit of the non democratic capitalist world into the bargain.
And the American posture towards a significant part of the land mass of their principal (be in no doubt, principal) strategic ally, deciding to up sticks and depart not just from the continued participation in the same nation state but, further, in the process to move from slavish support to. at best, cautious scepticism, towards US Defence policy is hardly likely to be one of "no comment".
Is there anybody who would be prepared to seriously dispute that immediately preceding proposition?
Now, that doesn't mean we would see military intervention, or even threatened economic reprisal. Soft power doesn't work like that. All that would need to happen would be for the United States to express a mild disapproval, which, if independence ever became a remote possibilty they undoubtedly would, and the terms of the debate would be fundamentally changed. And how much more so if that disapproval came from the lips of a President more loved (I use that word advisedly) here than he is in many parts of the United States itself.
The idea that this threat can be headed off by a token commitment to half hearted and possibly temporary membership of NATO is simply deranged. Indeed, even if we were promising, post independence, enthusiastic embrace of a continued nuclear submarine base as part of a continued United Kingdom common defence policy, even then, surely the Americans would rather prefer things to remain as they are at the moment.
I finish however with a local example. Northern Ireland. For historical reasons wholly unrecreatable in Scotland, for a long time it was possible for the altogether more committed and serious nationalists of Northern Ireland to ensure the United States remained broadly neutral in their struggle. When that changed however, the struggle itself was quickly realised to be unwinnable by the Nationalists themselves and, today, Sinn Fein politicians queue up to be patted on the head for their common sense conclusions just as readily as the most hardened unionist. Without a single threat, just a quiet indication of what was expected of them.
Sorry to keep repeating myself but no matter what policy changing gymnastics the SNP leadership perform, they cannot win a referendum. For for that reason, the final policy routine performed in front of the membership will be to persuade them that a referendum cannot take place. Or at least by deliberate legal obfuscation to secure that same outcome.