Bill Jamieson: Who really won the referendum?

It is a question being increasingly asked. Picture: PA

It is a question being increasingly asked. Picture: PA

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THE Scottish referendum result is proving irrelevant and the proposed vote on EU membership is a farce, says Bill Jamieson.

Who still thinks referendums are a good idea? In a divisive intervention yesterday, Scotland’s First Minister-in-Waiting Nicola Sturgeon has thrown a grenade under the Conservatives’ European Union (EU) referendum plans.

In declaring the Scots, English, Welsh and Northern Irish should each need to deliver a majority vote to make EU withdrawal legal and that the SNP would table an amendment to this effect, she has added both to the mounting difficulties of such a referendum being held and to an increasingly sulphurous mood at Westminster.

And it will have another effect, particularly troublesome in Scotland: her position will be widely seen as effectively sweeping aside the result of the Scottish referendum vote a month ago in favour of remaining within the UK.

Indeed, “who won the Scottish referendum?” is the question increasingly being asked. Has Better Together secured anything more than a Pyrrhic victory? The SNP is pressing ahead undaunted with demands for the full range of “devo-max” powers while it is the Labour Party – the largest political unit in the “winning” side of the referendum – that has been smashed by the pendulous return of the wrecking ball of consequence.

Few of the uncertainties over tax and fiscal policy that crowded in on the business community have been resolved. And our relationship with the rest of the UK looks as disputatious as ever. The vote that was supposed to “put the independence issue to bed for a generation” has strengthened the SNP, fired up its prospects and wrecked Labour. Now its intervention on the EU referendum could be seen as a device to frustrate majority opinion across the UK. Democratic – or perverse?

However, its stance is only the latest difficulty to have befallen Prime Minister David Cameron’s referendum plans. On Tuesday the Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg killed off any chance of the Conservatives’ EU Referendum Bill passing through the Commons ahead of the Westminster election in May after demanding curbs to the so-called bedroom tax as the price of support. Mr Clegg has compared leaving the EU to an “act of monumental economic vandalism”. Given near zero growth across the eurozone, self-inflicted economic vandalism is a condition with which Brussels is well familiar.

As if to rub salt in the wound, Nick Boles, an education and business minister, said this week the UK would not be able to limit migration from the EU.

Rejoice in Conservative misfortunes? Be mindful that for all this there will be a reckoning. English voters are deeply frustrated over Cameron’s failure to curb immigration from the EU – the subject of a furious row at Westminster Question Time yesterday between the Prime Minister and Labour leader Ed Miliband. Coming on top of the European Commission’s demand for Britain to pay an extra £1.7 billion in EU contributions by the start of December, concern over the extent of UK “influence” in Brussels and the erosion of sovereignty can only have been given another boost.

Little wonder Ukip can hardly believe its luck. Despite all the questions raised about the calibre of its candidates and continual sneering by the bien pensants of the BBC, not only does it stand a fair chance of winning the Rochester and Strood by-election on 20 November – a campaign at which the Tories have been throwing everything bar the kitchen sink – but it could also inflict grievous wounds on the Conservatives in the general election.

As matters stand, an EU referendum bill looks set to be drowned in the bloody entrails of Westminster politics well before that SNP amendment ever gets to be put. A Labour victory or a hung parliament would make an in-out EU referendum even more unlikely.

But that may be the least of our problems awaiting us. We are heading for trouble with a gridlocked parliament. An enlarged SNP contingent will be pressing for “more powers” while large numbers of English MPs will be chasing English Votes for English Laws. Frustrated voters down south will be swinging to Ukip, and the balance of power will effectively be held by two groups committed to the disruption, one way or the other, of a 70-year “mainstream” two-party system corroded to the point of collapse.

And over all this hangs a growing pile of debt, £1.4 trillion and rising, and an annual debt interest bill already at £53bn and also rising: the biggest threat to our well-being in the post-war era, threatening more austerity ahead.

A reckoning there will be, and running through this, Europe is set to prove itself once again a highly divisive issue in UK politics. Now it is certainly true that in certain respects Scotland stands in a different relation to the EU than “rUK”. Scotland is a net beneficiary of EU funds and regional aid. On a strict calculation of direct monetary gains and losses, the supplicants at St Andrew’s House would certainly wish our membership to continue. And on immigration we have not experienced anything like the social pressures that have confronted many English regions while we have a continuing need for immigrants to bolster our labour market.

But we are not as avowedly pro-EU as some assert. Set against the claimed benefits are issues which offend Scots voters as much as English ones: ever-escalating EU budgets, manifold examples of waste and bloated bureaucracy. An Ipsos Mori poll last year found that more than half of Scots (58 per cent) thought there should be a referendum on Britain’s EU membership compared with just over a third who disagreed. Support for a referendum was highest among those living in Scotland’s most-deprived areas, those aged 55 and over (64 per cent) and men (62 per cent). Conservative and SNP voters are also more likely to think there should be a referendum (65 and 63 per cent respectively).

When asked how they would vote in a referendum on whether Britain should stay in the EU, just over half of Scots said they would vote to stay (53 per cent), compared with a third who said they would vote to leave (34 per cent).

According to Professor John Curtice’s reading of the Scottish Social Attitudes survey this year, not only did 63 per cent of No voters think Britain should either leave the EU or at least reduce its powers, but so also did 57 per cent of Yes supporters. A vote on EU membership – should there now ever be one and whatever the result – is one most Scots would welcome.

And a vote to stay in would not halt the agenda of “ever closer union” and the further tensions this would create. So we have major problems to resolve. And it does not help that, in the matter of referendums meant to help us resolve them, that the result of one is as good as ignored and the prospect of another, equally deserving, is frustrated by sectional point scoring. What benefit is gained, what uncertainty resolved, what grievance mended when we play so fast and loose with the principle of a popular vote?

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