Fiona Hyslop, the SNP Government’s de facto foreign secretary, led a chorus of approval among MSPs at Holyrood last week as Parliament voted overwhelmingly to endorse Scotland’s place in the EU ahead of the next month’s referendum on UK membership. But the mood of harmony being set by the cabinet minister was briefly spiked when the Labour MSP Neil Findlay aimed at hefty kick at the shaky structure which supports the SNP’s intellectual case for EU membership.
“Will the cabinet secretary expand on her logic of wanting to leave a political union of 60 million to join a political union of 750 million?” the Labour MSP said. The response was little better than playground stuff from Ms Hyslop who suggested the left-wing Labour politician should go and join Boris Johnson on the Brexit campaign trail. Two more unlikely political bedfellows in British politics are hard to imagine.
The SNP minister did trot out the familiar line about “pooling and sharing sovereignty” in an interdependent world which was the mantra from the independence campaign two years ago. But the SNP’s blanket adherence to the European Union has hardly shifted since the “independence in Europe” mantra of the 1990s, even though one of the key figures behind that drive, the former deputy leader Jim Sillars, has since denounced EU membership.
The SNP’s position on the EU has been marked by singular lack of dissenting voices from the party’s 100-plus parliamentarians to EU membership. It seems that the steely discipline which characterised the SNP in the years throughout the independence referendum has been maintained on this issue. The only ripple of discord in recent years came when the party announced plans for a u-turn in its opposition to membership of the Nato nuclear-armed defence alliance in 2013 as the referendum loomed. This is despite the SNP’s long held opposition to nuclear weapons. It prompted a major bout of soul-searching which eventually saw the leadership prevail after a narrow vote.
But the main agitators on that occasion like John Finnie and Jean Urquhart and, eventually, John Wilson, all quit the party rather then remain as dissenting voices. But this week did see the emergence of the grass roots SNP Go organisation, founded by party member Gary Parker, which shed some light on the divergence of opinion within the party, mirroring the situation elsewhere across Scotland.
At the heart of his concern is that the party’s raison d’etre – to escape the union with the rest of the Britain – seemed utterly incongruous with the unflinching commitment to the ever-closer union which seems the inevitable path which the EU is heading down. He even voiced fears it could be seen as “anti-English”, although this was not a sentiment shared by anyone he knew in the SNP.
A significant number of independence-supporting Scots, Mr Parker said, were switching to Brexit. It can hardly be a surprise. Despite the higher levels of support for Remain north of the Border than down south, polling does suggest that anywhere between a third and over 40 per cent of Scots could vote for Brexit. It’s still not inconceivable that proportionately as many Scots could back Brexit as backed independence during the 2014 referendum.
The absence of debate in the SNP is all the more marked given the open hostilities elsewhere across the political spectrum. The Tories have perhaps taken things a bit too far. David Cameron’s gamble that a referendum could help finally draw a line under the Tories’ European woes already appears to have backfired with anti-EU backbenchers warning that he may be “toast” as party leader even if he wins the referendum next month yet the majority proves marginal.
With claims of World War III and economic meltdown from the pro-EU camp, countered by claims from Tory Brexiteers of the EU representing Hitler’s long-term vision and President Obama’s Kenyan descendancy being dragged into the debate after the US leader backed a Remain vote, the campaign is increasingly bizarre. But at least a live debate appears to be happening.
The Labour Party perhaps represents a better example of a pro-EU party, where many senior figures like the MPs Gisela Stuart and Kate Hoey, as well as the MSP Elaine Smith, are openly campaigning for a Leave vote. On an issue which is widely seen to transcend party politics, this is surely the stuff of mature political discourse. The SNP’s approach to independence in Europe was concocted in a different era.
David Cameron may have won the UK a qualified exemption from this in his re-negotiations, but an independent Scotland would certainly find itself obliged to sign up to closer union if it found itself seeking membership. The SNP’s claim during the referendum campaign two years ago that the country would simply remain inside the EU was rubbished by all the key players in Brussels.
So would a Scotland free from London’s shackles really benefit from being bolted on to the edge of an EU increasingly dominated by Brussels control? Perhaps it is something that needs to be put to a wider policy review by the SNP. The general support in Scotland for Remain may get the SNP through this referendum, but as the North Sea oil crash continues to bite and Scotland’s economy remains stagnant at best, leaders of the nationalist movement in Scotland must surely not shy away from the kind of debate which EU membership for Scotland merits.
They should particularly consider how the EU treats peripheral member states who fall into economic turmoil, where Scotland could find itself heading given the current widening gap between Scottish and UK growth.
The much vilified “Tory cuts” in the UK are as of nothing compared with the hardline austerity imposed on Greece and Portugal by the so-called Troika of the EC, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund.