Brian Monteith: Sillars opens up new angle on EU referendum

SNP veteran exposes the hypocrisy at the heart of his party's stance on leaving one union, writes Brian Monteith

Jim Sillars argues strongly for Scotland leaving the Union in the 2014 independence referendum, now he argues equally strongly in favour of leaving another. Picture: Fraser Bremner
Jim Sillars argues strongly for Scotland leaving the Union in the 2014 independence referendum, now he argues equally strongly in favour of leaving another. Picture: Fraser Bremner

It remains to be seen if the growing involvement of Jim Sillars in the European Union referendum debate will change the current balance of support in Scotland, but it has already ensured there will now be a more adult and civilised discussion than was taking place only a week ago.

The publication by Sillars of a new pamphlet called The Logical Case marks an important moment, for such is the iron discipline amongst elected SNP politicians to follow the leader there has been, until now, no rallying point for supporters of full-on Scottish independence. The Logical Case and its accompanying website ScotLeave.EU changes that and makes some telling points that the SNP leadership should consider.

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On the philosophical level Sillars explains why Scotland would be more able to make its own decisions free of not just London but Brussels rule. There is a logical consistency in this approach for it has yet to be argued convincingly by Nicola Sturgeon why one Union, that of Scotland inside the United Kingdom, is so objectionable while another, that of Scotland being part of the European Union, is so favourable.

There are some unionists who, in defending Scotland remaining in the UK, think that by logical extension they must also support UK membership of the EU but it is a fallacy, for the two unions are not the same.

One has reformed to evolve into a decentralising association with powers financial and legal being passed down to new parliaments or assemblies. There is a common language and a common history that has developed a common demos. Laws can be generated by the people from the ground up and there exists a democratic accountability (that is still open to further reform and improvement) which means the executive can be changed by the will of the people.

By contrast the other union is resisting any attempts to reform and is taking more legal and financial powers to the centre away from democratically accountable institutions. It has no common language or common history that has been able to develop a common demos. As a result laws are generated from the top down by an unelected executive that resists reform at every turn and cannot be removed by the will of the people.

The former, the United Kingdom, has been offering and delivering ever looser union, while the latter, the European Union, offers ever closer union, despite what the Prime Minister tries to tell us.

These are not arguments Jim Sillars needs to make for there is no inconsistency when advocating leaving both unions, but they do explain how some unionists have been able to find common cause with Nationalists without feeling that they are weakening either’s case for independence from the EU.

If there is a common thread that is becoming an ever tighter bond between those on the left and right or those who are Nationalist or unionist that oppose EU membership it is the linked issues of democracy and accountability.

Whether or not there is a need for better employment legislation, public health interventions or health and safety regulations is not in dispute, people can advocate either side but hold to the view that these issues should be determined by national parliaments where the politicians have sought a mandate for such change. This is wholly at odds with laws being conceived by technocrats open to huge corporate lobbying that are not open to amendment by our directly elected representatives.

Take a look at the significant changes to health and safety, public health laws and employment rights in the last century, and those have come predominantly from our own parliaments, protecting workers from the arbitrary power of employers, introducing measures such as smoking bans and delivering minimum standards for consumers. Was the minimum wage not introduced by a Labour government rather than any European Commissioner?

Claims that we need to be inside the EU to go further are contrary to the evidence where employment rights have and still are being eroded, where the development of e-cigarettes that could save millions of lives is being suffocated and while environmental damage in the disposal of lead is tolerated. There is little debate about those changes to laws or regulations as the institutions are so disconnected from the people they affect.

Who now in the EU seriously advocates subsidiarity, whereby decisions were meant to be taken at the level most appropriate to their application? The word has become an example of Orwellian EU doublespeak, having been turned around to mean more decisions being taken centrally. As this process is better understood – and the likes of Jim Sillars in the SNP and Nigel Griffiths in Labour make this case – so the appeal to having greater control at the local level will grow during the campaign.

The example of the current TTIP trade negotiations with the United States being held in secret and eventually to become a fait accompli will drive this point home even further. If SNP politicians could claim during the independence referendum that membership of the UK would, through the imposition of TTIP, lead to the privatisation of the NHS then why are they not talking about that threat now? TTIP is an EU treaty that, if they were correct back then, will deliver their warnings in the future and leaving the EU will be their opportunity, possibly their only one, to halt it to before it becomes our law. There is another dimension to the debate in Scotland and Jim Sillars does not seek to avoid it but to his credit takes it head on. The question of whether or not Scotland voting differently to stay in the EU while the rest of the UK votes to leave precipitating a second referendum is shown to be false. At the political level Sillars exposes the tortured thinking of the SNP leadership that has on the one hand argued Scotland should have a veto on the UK’s membership and yet on the other, by deciding to campaign in England, acknowledges the referendum is a UK-wide decision.

In such circumstances what claim could the First Minister then make to say the decision is anything but a UK-wide one?

Until last week the EU referendum looked one sided in Scotland, thanks to Jim Sillars that has at last changed.

• Brian Monteith is a director of Global Britain