Christopher Howarth is a senior researcher working in the House of Commons. Prior to this he worked for Open Europe, as a Conservative Foreign Affairs Adviser and senior researcher to a Shadow Europe Minister.
It is not surprising that the SNP claim (falsely) that Scottish opinion on the EU is dramatically different than English opinion. They are, after all, Scottish nationalists and need to constantly demonstrate Scottish exceptionalism or pack up shop.
It is also unsurprising that the SNP are trying to use the referendum on the UK’s EU membership to renew their failed bid for Scottish Independence – if the UK votes to leave the EU and Scotland does not, they claim there is a case for a second Scottish independence referendum.
Of course they do, that and any other excuse. More surprising is that some Unionists (in the UK and EU sense) now say they agree with the SNP and are also arguing that a vote (in England at least) for the EU exit could put our 300 year-old union at risk.
For the most part this is opportunism by pro-EU campaigners. Finding it hard to create an emotional appeal for the EU institutions, they have decided to reverse the SNP ‘logic’ and experiment with playing the Unionist card. A bootlegger coalition of the SNP and Europhile opportunists both claiming the UK is at risk!
We might leave it there, were it not for the fact that a serious Conservative politician has also decided to play the Unionist card in the EU debate – William Hague. Writing in the Daily Telegraph recently, he cited the preservation of the UK as his primary reason for supporting the EU. Now, Lord Hague has impeccable Unionist credentials and before he become Foreign Secretary could not be described as a Europhile: as Party leader, he called for a referendum on the Amsterdam Treaty, supported ‘keep the pound’, and was no guileless EU state builder when I worked with him on opposing the Lisbon Treaty – indeed, he promised to ‘not let matters rest there’.
Lord Hague’s central contention is that a vote to leave the EU will put the UK at risk because it would increase the chances of a new Scottish referendum and Scots might vote to leave. This is based on a number of assumptions, namely that –
- Scots would still value joining the EU even if the rest of the UK has left the EU.
- Scots themselves agree with the SNP’s case for another referendum and see themselves as more Europhile than the rest of the UK.
- The SNP will not call for referendum if the UK votes to stay in the EU.
- Scots will not themselves vote for Brexit.
All these assumptions are faulty.
First, if the UK voted to leave the EU and Scots did not, which in a tight vote is a possible outcome, Scotland would find itself in a new situation. Whereas for now the SNP may see the EU as a convenient enabler of independence for small states (experience in Greece and Ireland notwithstanding) things would change if the UK left the EU.
No longer would the EU govern the free flow of goods and services over the Scots/English border. If the UK was out of the EU the SNP would be asking the Scots people to choose to join an EU that accounts for 16 per cent of its exports leaving the UK, the rest of which accounts for 65 per cent. For Scotland as much as for England, the UK is the Single Market that matters most.
The SNP’s problems do not stop there. An application to join the EU would require the negotiation of Schengen and Euro opt-outs in order to retain passport free travel with the rUK and allow them to create their own currency. There is also the issue of losing the UK budget rebate: we know achieving meaningful concessions in the EU is not easy.
Even if you believe Scots are pro-EU, it would take a tough sell by the SNP to claim after the UK left the EU that EU membership still held such value and was so preferable to UK membership that it was a reason to leave the UK. At that point the political geography will have changed.
Secondly, Scots themselves do not see the argument for a second referendum if the UK votes to leave the EU. A study by Edinburgh University Academy of Government shows that by 55 per cent to 45 per cent, Scots believe the EU referendum should be decided on a UK-wide basis.
Nor is it clear that Scots are particular outliers on EU membership (or any other issue). YouGov collating data over a number of polls come up with a 60/40 Scottish split in favour of the EU, with Wales 53/47 and London 55/45 – by contrast East Anglia is 53/47 in favour of leaving.
So Scotland appears to be marginally more pro-EU but, given the large number of excluded ‘don’t knows’, it is hard to make an argument for Scots exceptionalism – and amusingly the analysis shows 38 per ent of SNP voters themselves support Brexit, which given the SNP’s roots in the fishing community is perhaps not surprising. So much for Europhile Scots nationalism. Indeed, it might be worth the SNP pondering that while 44.7 per cent of Scots voted for independence at least 40 per cent of Scots back Brexit, presumably a large number are the same people?
Lastly, making a tactical argument that the best way to avoid breaking up the UK is to avoid a repeat Scottish referendum is both undemocratic and spectacularly misses the main point.
The truth is the best way to avoid Scottish independence is to prove the value of the UK to Scotland. It is to create a renewed pride in the UK, to demonstrate the benefits of our 300 year old Union, the amazing achievements we have done together in the past and more importantly what we can do together in the future.
The UK is a uniquely successful political arrangement, perhaps the most successful the world has seen. Rather than seek to avoid a Scottish referendum we should, Brexit or not, build on the UK’s achievements, renew its sense of purpose and Scotland’s invaluable part in it. Self-confidence is contagious: if we renew the strength of our conviction in the benefits of the UK and British civilization and its future, then Scottish nationalism will evaporate like the morning mist.