Britain, Europe and Scotland’s Next Referendum
There is a comic strip that went viral during the Scottish Referendum debates that had a cartoon Britain rebuking EU efforts to keep it in the Europe. Britain then turns to Scotland and makes the exact argument that the EU made to Britain. The cartoon intends to show the hypocrisy of Britain’s argument and the inherent self-interest in the Unionist argument. However, the cartoon’s result is mainly to point out the massive issue that is Europe in British politics.
Britain has always had a somewhat strained relationship with Europe and that relationship will be tested to the limit with the ‘inevitable’ referendum,after next year’s election, according to Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister in waiting. Given that opinion on membership of the EU differs so markedly across the Union, Sturgeon has called for a voting system where all four nations in the UK vote individually on the matter. If one votes no, Sturgeons claims, then how is it fair that said country should be unwillingly pulled out of Europe?
Sturgeon’s concerns are well-founded. England, the heartland of UKIP and Euroscepticism in Britain, has a population and standing within the UK that dwarfs the other members. If a UK-wide vote were to take place (as Cameron has indicated will be the case) and England voted yes, then it is extremely likely that the sheer weight of the English population would carry the vote. This is especially worrying for Scotland, where the parties in power are strongly pro-european and the only other party worth mentioning, Scottish Labour, are also traditionally pro-EU or, at least, not particularly Eurosceptic. Scotland is also the most pro-EU nation in the United Kingdom. A recent poll by Herald Scotland showed 57% support for continued EU membership with only 28% willing to leave. This latter figure is juxtaposed starkly with the 47% support for leaving throughout the rest of the UK. Scotland clearly has a lot to lose in the event of an In/Out referendum.
However, Sturgeon and the SNP have a problem with their proposal. Recent polling shows that Euroscepticism is strong in Wales, and Northern Ireland finds itself in the unique position that both the Unionists and the Nationalists are quite sceptical of the EU (although, Sinn Fein are not explicitly anti-EU). If three of the four nations in the Union, vote yes, is it the right of one nation to stop the democratic will of the rest of the Union. Of course not. Sturgeon and the SNP along with the Scottish Greens must know this and here the question of independence may be raised yet again.
Far from settling the question for a generation, as Cameron claimed, the referendum threw up many more questions than answers and the question of independence still divides Scotland down the middle. One of the main issues throughout the campaign was EU membership. Would an independent Scotland still be an EU member? Would they have to Labour constantly raised the issue as a way of forcing doubt into the left-wing vote, which was largely supportive of independence. The Yes campaign recognised how important this issue was by including continued EU membership in their fliers and posters in the weeks leading up to the referendum. Equally, Labour recognised that making the issue a political battleground could still hold some of its voters away from the increasingly left-wing independence movement. It is impossible to say how much the uncertainty over continued EU membership swayed the vote, but its prevalence in debates and posters leading up to the referendum show how important the EU is to the Scottish electorate.
It has been suggested, especially in the Guardian, that the veto system could point a way to a more federalised future for the UK and could actually strengthen the Union. However, this idea of federalism could create resentment towards Scotland, especially if the Yes vote is clear in the other nations and Scotland vetoes it. The SNP have already shown their ability to create a massive question around a single issue, notably around the NHS, and if they are able to engage the public in the EU debate to the same extent, then there is a real possibility that another referendum may be called in the near future.
If the EU continues to make demands of Britain that are so easy for the media to paint as unreasonable and UKIP’s hold on public imagination in the UK continues to grow, then Scotland could face another massive decision. September 2014 could end up being a stay of execution for the UK.