Brian Monteith: Time for Sturgeon to battle PM over EU vote

Prime Minister David Cameron and Scotland's First Minister Nicola  Sturgeon should be less closely aligned on EU matters. Picture: Getty
Prime Minister David Cameron and Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon should be less closely aligned on EU matters. Picture: Getty
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The SNP should be campaigning against David Cameron – not alongside him, writes Brian Monteith

With 2016 finally underway, Scottish politicians will be preparing for the Holyrood elections in May, but they will be fooling themselves if they think it will be the most important political event of the year. That honour must be reserved for the referendum on UK membership of the European Union which the Prime Minister hopes to hold in late June. The decision to call the referendum will rest upon him believing he can win it, for were he to lose their is little doubt he would have to resign his office.

I state this because he has already admitted that he considered resigning if he lost the Scottish referendum but he was never put to that test. The EU referendum would have been called by him, on terms that he and his Chancellor have negotiated, with a franchise and question agreed by him and a campaign led by him and his government. It would be a personal defeat for him and he would undoubtedly face severe criticism from Tory colleagues looking to displace him. Politics is a hard business and the man that delivered the first outright Conservative general election victory since 1992 would be shown little thanks and even less mercy by his party.

The Chancellor, having also negotiated the cosmetic EU reforms and campaigned with the Prime Minister, could hardly be expected to inherit the office. That prize would surely go to an EU-sceptic politician that chose to campaign to leave – possibly Theresa May, Boris Johnson or maybe the Scottish Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon. The UK government would be thrown into turmoil while the Conservative Party held its leadership election.

It is all the more strange, therefore, that the SNP has not sought to leave itself the opportunity to campaign against the Prime Minister by advocating a vote to leave the EU. It could do this by waiting to decide if it believes the reforms that David Cameron has extracted are worthwhile or nothing other than a fudge to disguise his embarrassment. Nicola Sturgeon, reputedly a great tactician, has already given the PM a blank cheque by saying Scotland should remain in the EU at all costs, unreformed or not. She will therefore campaign on the same side as the PM and SNP politicians will find themselves doing exactly what they criticised Labour politicians for doing in 2014 – siding with the Tories. Some may even end up on the same platforms as Conservatives making very similar arguments.

It is not exactly clear why Sturgeon declared her hand so early in favour of Cameron when it was already becoming clear in the course of last year that the PM was going to find his negotiations ignored by EU leaders. It may be that she thought it more astute to talk of how a vote by the UK to leave the EU could “trigger” a second independence referendum if Scotland voted to remain a member. Her rhetoric on this threat was certainly noticed down South and some, such a Nick Clegg, still use the possible break-up of the UK as a reason for people to vote in favour of EU membership.

Fewer people appear to have noticed how – in a BBC interview and at her own annual party conference – the First Minister backed away from this threat by adding that there would have to be “clear and consistent” support from the Scottish public for a second referendum even if the UK voted to leave the EU. This was clarified to meaning consistent support of more than 60 per cent in polls – something the SNP has never yet achieved. That retreat suggested to me that Sturgeon does not want a second referendum she will not win, but like the Prime Minister and his EU “negotiation” is keen to build a false perception of a bellicose politician defending her country’s interests.

When Sturgeon chose to defend Scottish membership of the EU last year it became apparent she had not considered that Scotland’s interests could actually be to join Norway, Switzerland or Iceland and be outside the European Union whatever the UK chooses to do. For one thing her justification for EU membership was little more than the usual scaremongering about jobs and access to markets which are demonstrably false. It was not long before the Scottish Parliament’s own researchers destroyed the importance of EU membership for jobs (not withstanding the fact that EU countries would lose jobs if we stopped buying their goods). The fact that the Ukraine, a country on the brink of civil war has been given access to the EU markets demonstrates how being a member of not a prerequisite to trade – just as the US, China and many smaller countries can show. Nor was it considered that leaving the UK would in fact be a greater risk to employment – especially if Scotland were to be in the EU while the UK was not.

Were the UK to leave and the SNP was subsequently able to deliver Scottish independence, Sturgeon would then have to lead negotiations for entry from a very poor position. The Scottish economy is relatively small, its market for exports being a small fraction of the UK’s, what other than its fishing grounds would it have as a bargaining chip? There could be no prospect of an independent Scotland securing preferential treatment ahead of say, Turkey, or achieving membership terms as good as the UK had just rejected. Would the Scottish electorate endorse such an outcome if it meant having a different currency from our neighbour and largest economic market and the erection of border controls?

Instead the First Minister would have a very strong hand in demanding that the management of Scottish fishing grounds be delivered to Holyrood in a devolved Scotland – as the Scotland Acts already allow – or, if Scotland becomes independent, arranging a Free Trade Agreement with the EU that would ensure the supremacy of its legislature and its law as well as having sovereignty over the fishing grounds – just as Norway does.

Being able to campaign for a truly independent Scotland, or at least a more independent Scottish Parliament with control over fisheries and agriculture from within the UK, would pit the First Minister against the Conservatives and the Prime Minister while defending Scotland’s best interests. It’s not too late for her to review her position.

• Brian Monteith is a media adviser for Leave.EU and Global Britain