Leader: UK vote on leaving EU could scupper SNP plans

SCOTLAND’S 2014 vote on independence is no longer the only referendum game in town.

David Cameron’s comments in a Sunday newspaper that there is a “powerful case” for a referendum on Britain’s relationship with Europe if eurozone countries press ahead with a much closer political union have created a momentum which can only lead to a popular vote on British membership of the EU.

The prime minister made his remarks because three political forces are pushing him towards a plebiscite on Europe. First, the strong Eurosceptic wing of his party has long lusted after such a vote, to be signalled today by former defence secretary Liam Fox, in which he says that life outside the EU “holds no terror”.

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Second, the Conservative Party’s vote is threatened by the UK Independence Party. It is no longer an irritant which can be ignored but is capable of siphoning off enough votes to cost the Tories many seats at a general election.

Third, the Labour party has been toying with the idea of supporting a European referendum. Mr Cameron has clearly judged that he cannot afford to be outflanked on Europe by Labour. By recognising the strength of these developments, Mr Cameron has made an EU referendum a near certainty, most probably before the next general election due in May 2015.

Behind these political forces is public opinion which, as Europe has lurched from one crisis to another over the euro and the costs of dealing with each banking and sovereign debt crisis have risen, has become increasingly hostile to the EU. And if there was to be an in-or-out vote now, a verdict to quit looks the likeliest outcome.

But is that the question that will be posed? Comments by Foreign Secretary William Hague seem to indicate that the government wants to wait and see what the shape of the new EU will be. It also implies that the government is thinking about negotiating a series of opt-outs of whatever treaty on tighter fiscal union emerges from the eurozone members’ negotiations. Does that mean that the government will put a kind of EU-lite British membership versus a full-fat EU membership to a popular test? Or will it be EU-lite versus an EU-quit referendum?

Not enough information has been given out by ministers for anyone to be clear about what question will be asked, although it does seem clear that if there is no option which leads to complete disengagement from the EU, Mr Cameron will not satisfy Tory Eurosceptics or head off the electoral threat from UKIP.

It also seems clear that this will play havoc with SNP plans for an independence referendum. How will the Scottish Government handle the possibility that Britain, or indeed Scotland if Scottish votes are counted separately, might vote to leave, or may have already demanded to quit, the EU? Independent Scottish membership of the EU has long been an article of faith for the SNP. But now public opinion might demand something else altogether.

Criminal case of greedy bankers

BRITAIN’S banking industry has turned into a giant can of worms. No sooner has one slimy mess emerged and been dealt with than another slithers out. The latest scandal, that senior people in investment arms of the major retailing banks colluded in fixing inter-bank lending rates, speaks of the most appalling institutional corruption.

Stephen Hester, chief executive of RBS, who, it has emerged, has fired four traders engaged in this fixing, put it well when he said some bankers had continued to believe that they were masters of the universe and not servants of the people. Well, it is time for the people to find out who these people are and to see them punished.

Huge fines have been levied by the Financial Services Authority on Barclays, whose chief executive, Bob Diamond, is due to appear before MPs this week. He has much explaining to do and surely must, having been head of Barclays investment arm before he took over the top job, take the blame for his bank’s failings.

More investigations of other banks’ behaviour, including RBS, are under way and more fines look likely. But this is not enough. At first sight, the people involved seem to have behaved less like bankers and more like a criminal gang engaged in a conspiracy to defraud. If they made money, somebody must have lost money. A police investigation aimed at bringing those responsible to trial in a criminal court must now be carried out.

But beyond that, deep disinfection of banks is required. Banks sold the public worthless payment protection insurance, sold businesses dodgy high-risk interest payment protection policies and conspired to fix interest rates, all for personal greed. This racket has to end now.