Peter Jones: No guarantees for a new alliance
SCOTLAND’S historic links with the Continent made EU membership appear a given, now there are doubts.
That an independent Scotland will be a proud member of the European Union has long been an article of faith with SNP leaders. So much so that they insist this will be a fact rather than a still-to-be negotiated probability as many non-aligned observers think. But what if Scottish voters think Scotland would be better off outside the EU? How would this affect the SNP’s chances of winning independence?
Students of nationalist history will recall that “Independence in Europe” became the SNP’s policy stance in 1989, largely at the behest of the then very high-profile member Jim Sillars who had, the year previously, won the Govan by-election for the SNP.
The central argument he advanced was that by maintaining that Scotland would be an independent member of the EU, this would counter a standard unionist charge that an independent Scotland would isolated and friendless. The new policy said this was nonsense, Scotland would instead be dining and dealing at the top tables of Europe, rubbing shoulders on an equal basis with all other European nations.
This also had the side-effect of modernising the SNP, banishing any thoughts that it was all about kilts and claymores. And it has generally been in tune with Scottish public opinion which tends to be more in favour of the EU than is the English electorate.
But that may no longer be true. One panel-based survey by YouGov in January found that the Scotland/England relative pro-EU bias still holds. This was a very big survey of more than 5,000 GB voters, including 1,007 Scots. Amongst voters in England, 51 per cent were for quitting the EU and 35 per cent for staying in it with 14 per cent undecided.
Amongst Scots, however, opinion was evenly divided with 43 per cent wanting to leave and the same percentage for staying in. This is hardly the majority endorsement of Scottish EU membership which has been the case for much of the last two decades.
Even this split opinion may over-state Scottish enthusiasm for the EU. Another polling organisation, Survation, asked some slightly different but more pointed questions around the same time in January.
It asked: “If Scotland were to become an independent country, do you think it should then join the European Union?” Of those polled, 49 per cent said no and only 32 per cent said yes with 19 per cent undecided. Supporters of all parties, except the Liberal Democrats, were hostile including SNP voters who were against EU membership by a 49-33 margin.
A clue as to why this poll found Scots opposed to independence in Europe came with responses to the next question: “If Scotland were to become an independent country, do you think it should then join the Euro currency?” This time, only 11 per cent were in favour and a massive 79 per cent were opposed.
As is fairly obvious, Scottish attitudes to EU membership tend to be based on whether it is in crisis or not. And the greater the trouble being faced by the euro currency, the less attractive EU membership appears.
On the British scale, YouGov pollster Peter Kellner says that this means attitudes to the EU have become highly volatile. Since June last year, support for staying in the EU amongst British voters in YouGov polling has ranged from as high as 41 per cent last December to as low as 28 per cent in May this year.
The December poll was conducted a few days after David Cameron “vetoed”, or at least kept Britain out of, EU plans to forge a new fiscal union giving Brussels more say over national government’s tax and borrowing plans. “Many people who distrust Brussels felt that if Britain could retain vital financial powers, the need for complete withdrawal had receded. But as this spring’s Eurozone crisis intensified, the appetite for withdrawal has revived,” Mr Kellner concluded.
I see no reason to think that Scottish opinion, while being generally about 5 percentage points more favourably disposed to the EU than voters south of the Border, should not have waxed and waned in broadly the same fashion. But I struggle to understand why, when EU membership is presented in the context of Scottish independence, Scottish opinion seems to become more, not less, opposed to EU membership.
At this point, I hear the voice of Jim Fairlie. Mr Fairlie was a long-time SNP stalwart, rising to be deputy leader at one point, until, that is, independence in Europe was adopted. He resigned from the party, having failed to convince it that this was not independence at all and would merely substitute Brussels diktat for London rule, both being equally objectionable.
Perhaps this is what Scottish voters are now saying through these opinion polls, that if Scotland is going to be independent, let’s be properly independent and not be beholden to anyone else. Indeed, I note that on the webpages of Newsnet Scotland, a forum for much nationalist discussion, that when the topic of these EU polls crops up, there is much debate about the relative merits of Scotland joining the EU or being part of the European Free Trade Association (Iceland, Norway, Switzerland, Leichtenstein) outside the EU. These arguments seem to be conducted now with as much passion as they were in the 1980s’ Fairlie v Sillars debate.
Whatever the reason, it seems that two conclusions can safely be drawn. One is that independence in Europe is no longer the ace nationalist card it seemed to be when the policy was adopted. Alex Salmond may well find, particularly if the debate about a UK referendum on EU membership hots up, that his insistence Scotland will slip automatically into a Brussels top table seat, works against rather than for him.
The second is that the eurozone crisis poses a serious problem for his plans to win the independence referendum.
It now seems clear that it is not going to be resolved for years, certainly not before referendum day in autumn 2014.
Mr Salmond will have to pray that it does not flare up during the campaign period, for Europe is not the godsend for the SNP it once appeared to be.
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