MAINSTREAM parties face challenges from all directions over support EU membership, writes Brian Monteith
While in Scotland last week’s political focus was split between the arguments on whether or not to raise taxes and what might replace the Barnett Formula, there can be no mistaking that the bigger game was being played out in capitals across Europe over the Prime Minister’s negotiation on European Union reform.
Back in June Downing Street’s strategy of being able to hold an in or out referendum after securing reforms had everything going for it. Unfortunately for the Prime Minister, his desperately weak approach to negotiating that sold the pass from the beginning, together with crises on Greek debt, mass migration and security, have resulted in the public being less than impressed.
Polling evidence suggests the public does not believe what is being claimed as reform is significant enough to make any difference. In those circumstances the floating voters will be less disposed to backing an EU leadership that appears grudging to consider change and unable to foresee or deal with crises of their own making
While at this point in the Scottish Parliament election the EU referendum does not look relevant, it could yet have a salience for that campaign and must become important to the question of a second indyref.
With the leadership of all five of the parties currently represented at Holyrood backing continued EU membership, there is nowhere for EU-sceptic voters to go. If that becomes the swing issue for any electors in May then only Ukip in Scotland offers a democratic choice. The elevation of the EU referendum in the public’s consciousness could begin to make a second vote for Ukip attractive and make the attainment of the party’s first MSP a possibility.
While it is undoubtedly a long shot, the same was said about Nigel Farage’s party during the European Parliament elections, but my constant remonstrations during that campaign that Ukip could win a Scottish seat ultimately came true.
In January we have seen both an intervention by the SNP sage Jim Sillars in calling for a separate Nationalist campaign against EU membership and then the launch of Scottish Left Leave under the guidance of retired MP Nigel Griffiths.
Sillars has a deservedly large personal following for the simple reason that he recognises the political landscape changes.
Since the eighties, the certainties of an EEC trade bloc that has mutated into a centralising political union must give real concerns for Nationalists looking to restore local control. Sillars has had the good grace to review his past advocacy of EU engagement and now recognises how EU membership would neutralise any gains that leaving the UK might win.
Likewise the once-attractive prospect for international socialists of the EU securing protection for workers sounds like a very bad joke when it is the EU that ensures public service procurement must be competitively tendered, weakening workers’ pay and conditions.
The activity of Labour Leave in Scotland will give new focus to the left-of-centre arguments about escaping the neo-liberal European Union and must in time meld with those arguments being made by Sillars. This can only contribute to a growing level of Scottish support for rejecting the European Union that David Cameron and George Osborne are so keen to champion.
The growing Scottish trend towards rejecting the EU, while small, is undoubtedly there and once supportive arguments are articulated with greater purpose and by voices like Sillars and Griffiths can be expected to grow further. Polling by TNS put support for Brexit at only 19 per cent last May, rising to 21 per cent in September and 24 per cent in January. Excluding don’t knows puts Scottish support for a UK Brexit at 32 per cent – before anyone has put the Scottish case for Brexit.
Once that Scottish case is constructed there is no reason it cannot go beyond 40 per cent – at which point Scotland’s divergence with the rest of the UK over EU membership becomes less significant and certainly not enough to justify holding a second referendum.
And a Scottish case does exist. How can any Scottish politician at Holyrood reject the prospect of gaining full control over fishing policy? The same goes for delivering agricultural management and support or devising economic support. With a net saving of £12 billion to be disbursed around the UK, what Scottish politician could not conceive of more useful public spending that would at a stroke eliminate the need for austerity politics? All of these competences or policies would be possible under both devolution or independence.
All the more strange then that SNP leaders arguing for more powers for Holyrood have not recognised that the mechanism most likely to deliver a beneficial outcome is to defeat the UK political establishment – the BBC, the British civil service, the House of Lords and the grandees of Westminster who are on the side of the EU project.
In its eagerness to attack the rise of Ukip and what it portrays as narrow English Nationalism, the SNP has ended up siding with the very establishment it proclaims to abhor. Thank goodness for the insight of Jim Sillars and Nigel Griffiths.
• Brian Monteith is a director of Global Britain