Christopher Howarth is a senior Political Analyst at the think tank Open Europe. Prior to Open Europe he worked as a Conservative Foreign Affairs Adviser and senior researcher to a Shadow Europe Minister.
Predicting the outcome of the next election is a mug’s game. But I will go as far as saying there is a chance it could be close and if the electorate decides to hang parliament then the SNP could be in a powerful position – the kingmaker.
Having the SNP holding the balance of power would be a recipe for instability, not least because creating instability at a UK level would serve the SNP’s core purpose. Chaos and argument could range across the whole gamut of Government, including defence, finance, constitutional issues – and the question of whether to hold an EU referendum.
The SNP’s position on an EU referendum is opaque: they voted for a referendum on the Lisbon treaty and obviously have no objections to referendums in principle, but conversely were not going to offer the Scottish people the choice of whether an independent Scotland should apply to join the EU.
If the Conservatives were to attempt to govern as a minority it should be assumed they would attempt to push on with an EU referendum. For that, SNP votes in Westminster could be crucial – but would they back it? So far, in order to square their advocacy for a Scottish referendum with opposition to an EU referendum, we have heard that the SNP would wish to argue that the referendum could only pass if all four parts of the UK voted to leave – a Scottish veto. I doubt this is the last word on the subject – after all, the SNP is far more interested in independence than the EU.
Scotland is not much less Eurosceptic than the rest of the UK. It is also true that having decided to remain in the UK, the question of EU membership is obviously something that the UK takes as a collective whole. The SNP disagree but what they would ideally like is another crack at an independence referendum, and a vote to leave the EU might be just the excuse they need. If the UK votes to leave, and Scotland votes to stay in the EU then instead of attempting to veto Brexit for the whole UK the SNP could settle for another referendum.
And this leads to an intriguing proposition: the SNP could back the Conservatives’ EU referendum on the basis they get another independence referendum should the UK vote to leave and Scotland votes to stay. But is it wise for a unionist Conservative party to offer the SNP a second independence referendum under these circumstances?
Playing out the scenario, the UK votes to leave the EU in 2017, but within the overall vote Scotland votes to stay. Scotland then gets the chance to vote either stay in the newly non-EU UK or leave the UK in order to apply to join the EU on its own. The SNP would be left arguing that EU membership was so important it was worth leaving the UK to go it alone.
This plan would face all manner of complications, which undoubtedly the unionist cause could explain. If the UK was not in the EU and Scotland was, there would potentially be customs and tariffs at the border. Scotland as a new state would have to join the EU from scratch and potentially be forced to join the Euro and Schengen, reinforcing the new customs wall with passport controls.
Added to that the currency question would re-emerge – would the EU allow Scotland to share a currency with a non-EU state, even if England willed it? Answer: No.
So Scotland would be left with many reasons to vote to remain as the only way to keep its relations with the UK. This would expose the fact that the SNP’s support for the EU was always based on the hope that both Scotland and the rUK would be members, making independence viable – if rUK upset that by leaving the EU then the calculation would have to change.
So it is quite probable that the SNP could back the Conservatives’ EU referendum, and then two referendums later remain within the UK but outside of the EU. Is it worth the risk? Perhaps.