Monday, 2 July 2012

A tale of two referendums

More questions than answers
A leader article in The Scotsman today portentously declares in its headline that a UK vote on leaving EU could scupper SNP plans. Which is a bit odd given that the SNP doesn't get much more than a passing mention in the final paragraph. Perhaps not so strange, however, when one takes account of the fact that the rabidly British nationalist Scotsman sees portents of calamity for the independence cause in the early blooming of snowdrops and the shapes of clouds. So should we be taking this seriously? Jeremiads concerning the imminent demise of Scotland's national party are as much part of The Scotsman's schtick as the trade-mark "Salmond accused...!" headline.

This is what they said.
It also seems clear that this will play havoc with SNP plans for an independence referendum. How will the Scottish Government handle the possibility that Britain, or indeed Scotland if Scottish votes are counted separately, might vote to leave, or may have already demanded to quit, the EU? Independent Scottish membership of the EU has long been an article of faith for the SNP. But now public opinion might demand something else altogether.
The thing that is supposedly going to "play havoc" with Scotland's independence referendum is, of course, the prospect - if that is not overstating things - of a referendum on the UK's membership of the European Union. So, how much of a problem might this be for the SNP and/or the independence referendum?

First off, it can hardly be a problem if it doesn't happen. Cameron making noises in an effort to appease the Little Englander wing of the Tory party does not constitute a clear statement of intent, far less a binding commitment. He's left himself plenty of wriggle-room by saying that a referendum would only be triggered by some significant change in the UK's current treaty arrangements with the EU. And he gets to be the final arbiter of what constitutes a sufficient cause. It would be very easy for Cameron to portray any new arrangements within the EU as having no impact on the UK due to the its being outside the Eurozone. Alternatively, he could claim that he had "won" some kind of opt-out or exemption for the UK. A tactic that other EU members would probably be happy to play along with, partly in order to avoid the disruption and distraction of a referendum and partly because, to an increasing extent, the UK is regarded as little more than an interfering outsider in any case.

Supposing there were to be a referendum there is no reason to suppose that it would be the simple IN/OUT affair that gets the Europhobes all of a tizzy. The EU referendum, in the unlikely event that there is one, would almost certainly avoid offering the option of quitting the EU and deal instead with the narrower matter of a new treaty arrangement.

And even if there were a straight IN/OUT question, it is by no means a foregone conclusion that the Europhobes would win. Tim Montgomerie identifies Seven reasons why the Eurosceptic movement faces an uphill battle to win any referendum. He might also have mentioned the fact that a debate on UK membership of the EU would inevitably throw a spotlight on the costs and difficulties associated with any alternative arrangement with Europe outside the EU. The anti-EU lobby tend to represent secession from the EU as some kind of magic bullet that will bring only benefits with no significant down-side. This pretence will not stand up to the kind of scrutiny a referendum would inevitably occasion.

But let us assume that this EU referendum actually happens. And, for the sake of simplicity, let us also assume that it is a referendum on UK membership of the EU. Let's play with that scenario, as it seems to be the one The Scotsman envisages. Presumably, this would happen before the independence referendum scheduled for autumn 2014. In the campaign leading up to the EU poll the SNP would undoubtedly support the IN side. The arguments the party would deploy have already been well rehearsed as part of its "Independence in Europe" strategy. In addition, Salmond and his team would be able to portray the referendum as yet another attempt by a British government to impose on Scotland decisions made at a UK level and informed by UK-wide considerations that are not necessarily relevant to Scotland. They will insist that any decision on Scotland's membership of the EU should be strictly and solely a matter for the people of Scotland after the independence vote.

The British parties will, of course, reject such a position out of hand and thus further alienate large swathes of Scottish opinion. The entire exercise will only further emphasise and exacerbate the already significant divergence between politics north and south of the border. All grist to the independence campaign's mill. And, so far, no problems at all for the SNP.

The Scotsman sees a real problem arising from the result of an EU referendum. Or, to be more precise, it assumes a win for the OUT side both in Scotland and UK-wide. But, as Tim Montgomerie recognises, this is by no means a foregone conclusion. The vote may be very close. And, given different attitudes to Europe, it is entirely possible that a narrow win for the OUT side in England could contrast with an equally narrow win for the IN side in Scotland. Far from being a problem for the SNP such an outcome would be a major headache for the Tory/Labour/LibDem coalition and the anti-independence campaign.

Certainly, The Scotsman's preferred scenario would create something of a policy dilemma for the SNP. But perhaps not as great as it's British nationalist prejudices lead it to suppose. The SNP would have two options. (Let us never underestimate the value of having options!) The party could graciously accept the verdict of the Scottish people and simply switch to arguing that, if the UK can secede from the EU without suffering dire consequences then there is even less reason to give credence to all the scare stories about Scotland's secession from the UK. Indeed, being outside the single market would necessitate the negotiation of a plethora of new trade agreements and it could easily be argued that Scotland's interests would be best served by engaging as a nation in its own right.

Alternatively, especially if the vote in Scotland is only marginally in favour of quitting the EU, the SNP could continue to campaign on the basis of membership of the EU being advantageous for Scotland as an independent nation.

Yet again we find that, when examined in the cold light of reason, the scare-mongering propaganda of the British nationalist media turns out to be almost entirely lacking in substance.



    "I regret that since I began arguing the case against NATO, a rather large number of SNP supporters have demonstrated the kind of unwillingness to tolerate dissent of any kind, on Twitter, on YouTube, on the blog, and, I regret to say, in violently abusive comments which I have removed at the pre-moderation stage, and in abusive emails.


    Of more concern is the apparent inability to engage with any debate above the level of sloganising and protestations of undying loyalty to anything the party says or does, or with complex, detailed arguments, and the 'magic wand' approach to independence.

    This is matched only by the uncanny silence of the party hierarchy and professional communicators, who nonetheless produce, daily, a blizzard of press release on just about anything under the sun - except defence matters and NATO."

    1. I'm struggling to discern your point.