THE conflicting needs of an EU referendum and one for independence might actually play well for nationalists, writes Allan Massie
How happy could I be with either / Were t’other dear charmer away,” sang Captain Macheath in The Beggar’s Opera. David Cameron is comparably divided, though he might not precisely describe either Nick Clegg or the Tory Europhobic Right as a charmer. But there he is tossed helplessly on the waves, making up and revising his European policy from day to day. The need to keep the Coalition together and his own judgement of what is in Britain’s interest pull him one way; the need to appease the rebels in his own party pull him the other. Now the rebels have found a spokesman, believed to be formidable, in the former Defence Secretary, Dr Liam Fox, and the Prime Minister has been bounced into promising a referendum on Europe.
Cameron has evidently no desire that the UK should secede from the EU. That would create many difficulties. The egregious Dr Fox should himself be aware of at least one of them: much of our future Defence requirements involve co-operation with France. Would such co-operation survive our secession? It seems unlikely – even though both states would remain members of Nato. Inasmuch as the Prime Minister has a policy – though this shifts from day to day – he appears to envisage some sort of renegotiation of our relationship with the EU and the repatriation of certain powers. This would actually require a new Treaty, which would have to be approved by all member states. He would then submit the outcome of these negotiations and the new Treaty to the electorate in a referendum.
In theory this would not be an in-out referendum. In practice it couldn’t be anything else. A majority against a new Treaty, supposedly negotiated in the UK’s interest, could not be anything but a vote for secession.
At present opinion polls indicate that a majority might choose to leave the EU. How reliable these polls are may be doubtful. For one thing most polls also suggest that most people don’t rate the EU among the most important issues. It matters less than the economy, jobs, taxes, the NHS, education and defence. So it is quite possible that when actually asked to vote on the question of our membership, people will think more seriously about the question, and vote differently.
The eurozone crisis has been a gift to those, mostly in UKIP and on the Tory Right, who want us to leave the EU. They think they are in a heads we win, tails you lose situation. Either the Eurozone falls apart, in which case they will argue that the European project was misconceived from the start and is now doomed, or the resolution of the crisis will require closer political union and the surrender of fiscal autonomy by national governments, in which case, they will say, we want none of it.
Yet both assumptions may be mistaken. The break-up of the eurozone and the collapse of the euro itself have been forecast pretty well every week for the last three years. Yet it hasn’t happened, and even the Greeks, who have suffered most from the policy of austerity imposed because of their high level of debt, don’t want out of the euro. As to the alternative, some form of closer political union and some control of national budgets may be agreed, but this will fall far short of what is envisaged. No European authority is going to stop a French or Italian government from running a deficit if it chooses to do so. As I’ve written here before, the likelihood is that compromises will be effected and the EU will muddle through.
There is another reason for thinking that the proposal to leave the EU would be rejected in a referendum. One argument for getting out has been the need to protect the autonomy of the City of London from European supervision and from the desire of some European governments, notably the French, to impose a financial transaction tax to reduce the volume of trading activity in the markets. Yet, “Vote No to Europe to protect the City of London” doesn’t seem to me an election slogan that will have wide popular appeal. Nobody – surely? – is going to demonstrate carrying a banner that proclaims “Hands Off Our Bankers.”
Some of the other complaints about the EU are unfounded. It is quite possible for us to amend our labour laws. Germany did so in the wake of the financial crash. Immigration from countries not in the EU is a national responsibility; we can restrict it as we wish. And, as I am weary of repeating, decisions on Human Rights in the law-courts have nothing to do with the EU.
If pressure continues to build on Cameron, and he gives way, the possibility arises of a referendum on the EU clashing with the referendum on Scottish independence. I think the time-scale makes this unlikely, unless Cameron surrenders and legislates for an in-out referendum. That might make for interesting times. It would surely put the SNP in a pickle. The party is – sensibly to my mind – committed to EU membership. It surely couldn’t resile on that. But, if there was a majority in favour of the UK’s secession – perhaps only an English majority – could Alex Salmond then credibly promise to keep sterling as the currency of an independent Scotland? On the other hand a majority in England in favour of withdrawal and a majority in Scotland in favour of remaining in the EU would surely strengthen the case for independence. Indeed, this is the one development that would persuade me to vote for Scottish independence, since I have no desire to pass the evening of my days in a country dominated by Little Englanders and disfigured by xenophobia. I wonder if the zealots of UKIP and the Tory Right realise that victory for them might hasten the disintegration of the United Kingdom? Perhaps they do, and perhaps their hatred of the EU is so intense, that they simply don’t care.
As for the Prime Minister who says “I don’t believe leaving the UK would be best for Britain”, he must either find the courage to face down the Europhobes in his party, or become their prisoner. There are dark moments when the latter seems the more likely.