Ian Duncan is Conservative MEP for Scotland.
This week Scotland’s First Minister jetted off to the US, on a whirlwind charm offensive with meetings at the World Bank, the IMF, the Council of Foreign Relations and a berth on the sofa of satirical news programme ‘The Daily Show’. It is extraordinary how quickly First Ministers discover a need to travel to far flung locations. You may recall her predecessor Alex Salmond took three taxpayer-funded transatlantic trips last year alone, at a cost of some £20,000.
Ms Sturgeon will barely have had time to unpack her bag from last week’s jaunt to Brussels. Another charm offensive. She had come to set out her pro-EU stall, and to take a few, well, actually more than a few, swipes at David Cameron. Before I delve in to the detail of her remarks, it is worth pausing a moment to reflect upon the SNP’s topsy-turvy relationship with Europe.
During her speech the First Minister described herself as a life-long europhile. The same cannot be said of the SNP. Indeed during Ms Sturgeon’s formative years, and the first few years of her party membership, the SNP was avowedly anti-Europe. In 1972 the party opposed UK membership of the European Community. During the last European referendum – the 40th anniversary of which was Friday past – the SNP slogan was ‘No vote, No entry’. The ‘Independence in Europe’ approach only emerged in 1988, and then it was more a slogan than a policy. It was the dreadful showing of the SNP in the Euro elections of 2004 that finally compelled the men in grey kilts to bring to an end the leadership of poor John Swinney.
However, despite her self-proclaimed Europhilia and her very well-kent dislike of the PM, the First Minister got on stage and did something remarkable; she joined him in calling for reform. As a Conservative MEP fighting to avoid overbearing EU regulation, I certainly welcomed the recognition that Europe has to change. However, like the speech itself, my appreciation soon fizzled out as it became clear that the First Minister would be remembered in Brussels most for her paucity of ambition.
Her specific asks were so mainstream that not only do they not require treaty change, they are actually taking place right now: regionalisation of the Common Fisheries Policy (already agreed though unfolding with a grudging slowness), delivering the digital agenda (currently being championed by Conservative MEP Vicky Ford, Chair of the Internal Market Committee), completing the single market (a Conservative priority since the days of Thatcher), Energy Union (as Energy Spokesman for the UK Conservatives, I have made progress in getting the Commission to prioritise developments in the North Sea).
On the bigger issues, the First Minister sought to create clear tartan water between herself and the Prime Minister, but her statements were always qualified. She whole-heartedly endorsed free movement of people, and then stressed the need for ‘collective reform of rules to guard against abuse of free movement’. Isn’t that exactly the position of the Prime Minister?
She spoke of the need to be part of a common Europe, but declared she was open to ‘safeguards’ for non-Euro member states, like the UK. Again, just as the PM has stated, moves to deepen Eurozone integration cannot disadvantage non-euro members. Also worth noting in the by-going that the FM declared that she could not foresee the UK joining the Euro in her lifetime. (I suppose we should be grateful that she didn’t rule it out for a ‘generation’).
The First Minister’s speech solidified the SNP’s great tradition of uncertainty on the European question. On the one hand, SNP logic dictates that if the UK government is against it, the SNP should be unashamedly pro. However, on issues such as fisheries and farming, and on protecting Scotland’s right to extract its oil (indeed many MEPs, mainly from the SNP’s own Europarty, would see this right removed), the SNP know that Europe is often no friend of Scotland’s. Although she did it with flare, the First Minister straddled two horses as she outlined her reforms. It was the shortest part of her speech, and she seemed relieved to move on.
When politicians have little to say on substance, process fills the vacuum. Indeed, much of Sturgeon’s speech was about the process of the vote itself. Having called for reform, she went on to describe the referendum as ‘undesirable’. The UK, she said, should only leave the EU if there was both an absolute majority in favour and favourable majorities in each of the four constituent members of the UK, the so-called ‘double majority’ lock. She concluded that ‘if a majority of Scots voted to stay in the EU but the UK as a whole voted to leave, then the groundswell of anger among ordinary people in Scotland … could produce a clamour for another independence referendum which may well be unstoppable’. Expect to see that statement writ large in the SNP manifesto for the upcoming Holyrood elections and perpetual ‘clamouring’ from the nationalist back-benches.
I have an old-fashioned view about this. Scots voted to stay in the UK less than a year ago. In the upcoming ‘in/out’ referendum, all votes must be equal, whether you are in Lerwick or Warwick, Belshill or Belfast, Cambuslang or Cardiff. Nothing is more likely to create discontent across the kingdom than the slogan, ‘All votes are equal but some are more equal than others.’ Maybe that is Ms Sturgeon’s calculation.
In terms of who should be able to vote, Ms Sturgeon had a simple plan: if you live in the UK you can vote, if you don’t you can’t. She slapped down hard a British Eurocrat who asked her to campaign to allow Brits abroad to vote, claiming that it wasn’t appropriate for a referendum. Another marker for the continued exclusion from any future Scottish referendum of all Scots resident in the rest of the UK, perhaps?
And what of the campaign? Just the other week, Alex Salmond, the former First Minister, bragged of his popularity and confirmed that he would share a platform with George Osborne, the Chancellor, who is expected to spearhead the ‘Yes’ campaign. Ms Sturgeon was asked if she too would share a platform with members of the Conservative and Labour parties. The answer was an unequivocal, ‘no’. The other parties would have to make their own ‘Yes’ posters.
As I left the auditorium I was struck by two things. The first: Nicola Sturgeon knows what her audience wants to hear. She delivered to the Brussels veterans broadly the same message that David Cameron has been promoting for several months, yet left the room to ringing applause. The second: by hook or by crook, Ms Sturgeon will always try to find a way of getting a second her Scottish referendum.
The First Minister may have bumped up her air miles and given some comfort to the Eurocrats still shell-shocked after the Conservative victory in the general election but has she advanced Scotland’s interests? That will depend upon whether she, and her swollen band of MPs at Westminster get behind the long overdue EU reform. Of course to achieve the reform Ms Sturgeon will have to work alongside the Conservative Party in Brussels fighting for reform before she arrived, and after she boarded her jet.