One of the Known Unknowns in the independence debate is whether and, if so, how and on what terms an independent Scotland would accede to membership of the European Union. Scotland and Europe, Part 2, will deal with those issues fully, soon. It will show that Scotland would accede to the EU — eventually — but that on no credible view would it do so before the projected Independence Day of March 2016. As such, Scotland would start its life as a new state outside the EU, a fate that would cost Scottish households dear. More of this anon.
But the results of the European Parliament elections have interrupted me. These results are important for the indyref: not because they tell us anything very much about what the result is likely to be come 18 September, but because they will shape the way the campaign develops from here — and in ways that do not suit the planned SNP narrative.
Have you ever wondered why the date of 18 September was chosen (by the SNP) for the independence referendum? September is an unusual month for a poll in the UK. We vote most often in May, with October and March generally being the default substitutes. I’m told by SNP insiders that the date was chosen because it was the closest possible date to the European elections. There are two schools of thought as to how Yes can win the referendum: the first is that they need a “gamechanger”; the second is that they win by stealth. As the months drag on, more No voters turn Undecided and more Undecideds are converted to Yes; meanwhile once a Yes voter always a yes voter — there is never any going back once someone has made their mind up to leave the UK. This in a nutshell is the second school of thought and for four or five months it seemed as though it might have got it right. From December 2013 until April 2014 the polls started to close; reports were rife of panic in the Better Together camp; and “momentum” was reported to be with the Yes camp, and building. No more. Momentum has stalled; the polls show that No’s lead is growing once again; and the stories from the Better Together campaign are of renewed focus, increased resources, and more effective campaigning. So we’re back to the first school of thought. The European elections were supposed to be the gamechanger that Salmond needs.
How? In short: UKIP. Long since forecast to win the poll in England, UKIP have struggled even to get a foot in north of the border. We all know those images of UKIP leader Nigel Farage seeking refuge in an Edinburgh pub when one of his ill-fated sojourns to Scotland went sour. This is not because Scotland is vastly less Eurosceptic than England. UKIP, despite its name, seemed to be anything but a UK party. It was England’s National Party; and it could not get going in Scotland because here we already have a successful National Party of our own, thank you very much.
If UKIP won in England but were frozen out in Scotland, Salmond would have used this in two ways: as an answer to his own EU problem; and as a wedge to show that Scotland and England were further apart politically than ever, that their National interests were diverging and not converging, that these really were two countries, and that they should be independent of one another. No doubt, we’ll hear plenty of this despite the European election results. But be in no doubt: those results make this a far less credible story than Salmond wanted. No gamechanger this.
UKIP did much better in Scotland than expected. They pushed the Greens into fifth place and the Lib Dems into a sorry sixth, and took the Lib Dems’ one Scottish seat in the European Parliament. We all knew the LDs were going to lose the seat, but the majority view was that it would go to the SNP. As it is, instead of SNP 3, Lab 2, Tory 1; we’ve got SNP 2, Lab 2, Tory 1, UKIP 1. This matters, because it brings the Scottish result more clearly into line with others in the UK: the result in London, for example, was Lab 4, Tory 2, Green 1, UKIP 1. It matters also because the one party in Scotland from whom UKIP did not take votes is the Tory party. The Conservatives’ share of the vote in Scotland went up (as it has done now in more than a dozen consecutive elections). The centre-right in Scotland is growing and the left-wing idealism that Caledonia is Dreaming a socialist future (Gerry Hassan) and that Scotia is about to Blossom into a socialist nirvana (Lesley Riddoch) has been shown to be a view beloved of the National Collective but not so much of national electorate. Surely the maddest reason of all to support Scottish independence is that it would embed Scottish social democracy: it would do precisely the opposite, and place it into greater jeopardy than any No vote. But, again, I’m anticipating future posts …
Back to the Euros. What now of the two uses Mr Salmond had wanted to make of this weekend’s results? First, do they make it any easier for him to deflect uncertainty over the status, timing and terms of an independent Scotland’s EU membership? They do not. The results demonstrate neither an overwhelming English majority in favour of the UK leaving the EU; yet nor at the same time do they show that there is no support for such a move north of the border. I fully accept that Euroscepticism may be more prevalent in England than in Scotland, but it is a difference of degree, not of kind. There is no evidence to support the view that a No vote in the independence referendum will lead to Scotland being taken out of the EU against its will by Eurosceptic voters in the rest of the UK. Whereas there is every evidence that an independent Scotland would not be able to join the EU until some time after independence day and, moreover, that Scotland would never be able to join the EU on terms as favourable as those currently enjoyed by the UK.
Secondly, do this weekend’s results support the view that, for all Mr Salmond’s bluster to the contrary, Scotland and England are in fact not two nations in pursuit of divergent political goals, but continue to have far more in common with one another than is convenient for the Scot Nats to admit? Yes they do. One of the SNP’s most dangerous foxes has been shot. It is not UKIP that seek to set Scotland and England on different political courses: it is the SNP. London has one UKIP MEP; so does Scotland. And so does Wales. And so does the North East region of England.
I take no pleasure in UKIP’s success. I am enthusiastically of the view that the United Kingdom should play a leading role at the heart of a reformed European Union. But I am also of the view that political differences between Scotland and her southern neighbour are much exaggerated; that it suits those who seek the break-up of Britain to perpetuate such exaggeration; and that arguments seeking to set Scotland up as if it is some sort of northern cure for English diseases are both deluded and dangerous. A major element of SNP strategy unravelled this weekend. Unionists can surely welcome this without for a moment endorsing either the policies or the personnel of the wretched UKIP.