THE Prime Minister looked momentarily wrong-footed. SNP MP Mike Weir had just stood up to ask why it was that David Cameron believed a two-year wait for a Scottish referendum was too long but a five-year delay before a potential EU referendum was “just fine”.
“There is a very easy answer,” declared Cameron, before answering a different question. One pro-UK Scottish Labour MP watching noted: “It was a very pertinent question, I’m not sure he saw it coming.”
It would appear not. For the last three months, “the referendum” in Downing Street has not meant that one up in Scotland. Consumed by the personal and political importance of last week’s Europe Speech, events in Scotland have taken a firm back seat. But as his speech was read out – finally – on Wednesday morning, its relevance to the debate in Scotland over its rather more imminent referendum in 2014 was already being pored over.
For weeks, the pro-independence campaign has been on the run, particularly over doubts that it would be given a free pass to join the European Union after independence. A poll last week put support for independence as low as 23 per cent. Now Cameron was suggesting that even if Scots voted to stay put, they might be out anyway a few years down the line. Had Cameron’s own pledge to put the issue of Britain’s EU membership up for grabs now let First Minister Alex Salmond off the hook?
Certainly, Cameron’s EU pledge last week has allowed the pro-independence movement to throw back some of the rocks that have been pounding their efforts to gain momentum recently.
It provided other attack lines too. Blair Jenkins, the chief executive of the pro-independence YesScotland campaign, claimed an in-out Euro referendum showed again how Scotland was dragged into an issue that concerned England more than Scotland.
“It is a bigger issue in England. Clearly it is much more of a controversy in England than it is in Scotland,” said Jenkins.
That view was backed by Labour’s Welsh First Minister Carwyn Jones, who claimed on Friday that “corrosive English Nationalism” was driving the debate on Britain exiting the EU. Far from independence being the threat to Scotland’s EU membership, it has allowed the pro-independence side to argue that it is the Union that presents the danger.
In a remarkably blunt article in today’s newspaper, Professor Michael Keating, of Aberdeen University, declares that it is Cameron, not Salmond, who is now “the separatist”. Privately, Scottish Labour sources acknowledge that Cameron “hasn’t helped things”. Suddenly, the roles are reversed.
But the picture may be more cloudy. Firstly, while the UK Independence Party (UKIP) is not the vote-grabbing force it is in England, Scotland is not the Europhile’s haven that it is painted. Political analyst Professor John Curtice, of Strathclyde University, notes: “Scotland is a little less Eurosceptic than the rest of the UK but the emphasis is on the little. If you look at four UK-wide polls and take the average of the people in Scotland who say we should leave the EU and have a looser relationship, the figure is around 56 per cent. For the UK, it is 60 per cent.”
In other words, there will be plenty of voters in Scotland sympathetic to Cameron’s form of separatism. Furthermore, as the “threat” of an EU exit only happens if Cameron manages to win an outright majority at Westminster at the 2015 general election, it remains a hypothetical. Those on the pro-UK side therefore argue that while Cameron’s intervention has not helped their cause, it will not be at the forefront of the electorate’s mind when Scottish independence is voted on next year.
“It’s an own goal,” said one Labour MP, “but that doesn’t mean there’s a greater chance of it being anything other than a ‘no’ in 2014.”
Nonetheless, Cameron’s speech has now added another layer to the debate over independence prior to 2014. Assuming the Tories are returned to government in 2015, what are the scenarios for Scotland? If Scotland opted to remain in the UK, the country’s future in the EU is in the balance. A poll last week concluded that by a narrow margin of 53-47, the UK would vote to leave the EU if a referendum were held now. How that translates in a real-time vote after a high profile campaign is anybody’s guess.
Other complications could also arise. Professor Andrew Campbell, of Leeds University’s School of Law, asks: “What happens if the UK votes to leave but voters in Scotland decide to stay in?” As a continuing part of the UK after a No vote, Scotland would have to leave the EU as well. The political implications for Nationalism in Scotland are obvious.
That scenario is a model of clarity compared to what would happen if Scotland votes for independence in 2014 – while the UK pressed ahead with its own EU public vote. Then all bets are off. What if Scotland still hadn’t extracted itself from the UK by 2017? Would it get a vote, asks Campbell? And if the rest of the UK voted to quit the EU, how would Scotland manage to ride two horses at once, applying to join the EU at the same time as planning a monetary and labour market union with the rest of the (independent) UK?
“We would have the pound and a single labour market but if we are in the EU and the UK is out, then it makes things very difficult,” says Keating. Could Scotland share the currency of a non-EU state?
Would the UK, outside the EU, demand border controls with EU-member Scotland? Or, given the fact that England is Scotland’s biggest trading partner, would a future Scottish prime minister not conclude that it was better to join the UK and other countries like Norway in a new non-EU single market dreamed of by Conservative Eurosceptics?
Alternatively, and ironically, say other European law experts, Cameron’s demand for renegotiation from 2015 onwards could actually help a newly independent Scotland with negotiations to get into the EU.
The theory is that with the EU being forced to sort out the UK’s new relationship, it would end up seeing the sense in sorting out Scotland at the same time.
In what has now become the Decade of the Referendums, the hypotheticals are stacked so high as to be shrouded in mist. All that is certain is that Scotland will have to choose first and that if Cameron is returned a year later his historic gamble will wash back on Scotland regardless of next year’s decision.