David Torrance: In? Out? Shake it all about

Harold Wilson casts his vote in the June 1975 referendum on the Common Market. Picture: Getty
Harold Wilson casts his vote in the June 1975 referendum on the Common Market. Picture: Getty
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CAMERON’S big EU moment, when it comes, will signal a fresh outbreak of constitutionitis – and we will all be in for a bumpy ride, writes David Torrance

Shortly before Christmas, the Prime Minister joked that his now-delayed speech on Europe represented a “tantric approach” to policy-making. In other words, he elaborated to a bemused audience, it would be “even better when it [did] eventually come”.

For understandable reasons – the need for the Prime Minister to take charge of the developing hostage crisis in Algeria – Cameron cancelled the speech which he was due to make today in The Netherlands.

However, whenever Cameron reaches what you might describe as a euro-climax, it is likely to end up being very messy, politically. When the Prime Minister does finally make his views clear on Europe, it will almost certainly unleash a noisy and often esoteric debate that will be horribly familiar to those dwelling north of the Border.

Let’s call it constitutionitis. This first infected Scottish politics in the late 1960s but has been particularly acute since May 2011. The UK has also had recurring bouts since 1973, while this new bout looks set to outlast Scotland, which will at least stage a recovery (of sorts) in 2014.

Constitutionitis is a disorder that, in essence, elevates a nation’s constitutional status above all other considerations. It obsesses over abstract issues like sovereignty, nomenclature and procedure while ignoring apparently second-order concerns like the economy, education and welfare.

There was a taste of what’s to come in the House of Commons this week: speculation about the wording of a referendum question, its timing, arguments over what powers each parliament should have … the list goes on. Even the opposition lines are similar, with Ed Miliband warning of the business “uncertainty” caused by a ballot, in this case over Europe.

It also exposes Cameron as a bit of a hypocrite. He’s spent the past couple of years accusing Alex Salmond of dragging his feet over the independence referendum, but if that’s true, then where does it leave the Prime Minister, whose own EU referendum might not take place until 2018? Talk about kicking a difficult issue into the long grass.

Arguably, in both cases a noisy minority has managed to punch above its weight and succeed in shaping the political agenda, but that doesn’t mean a) either position enjoys majority support, or b) that voters are as engaged with the minutia of constitutional politics as the Westminster/Holyrood and media classes.

Of course, it’s not an exact fit. Most Scottish Nationalists don’t want to withdraw from the European Union (although the SNP – opposed to the euro, fiscal union and the Common Fisheries Policy – isn’t exactly europhile), and the xenophobia we’ve come to associate with the worst eurosceptics is mercifully absent from much of the Scottish constitutional debate.

But still, the logic and rhetoric of both camps is often uncannily similar. Consider the following quote from arch-eurosceptic (and presumably pro-UK) Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan: “Of course, pulling out of all these common policies doesn’t mean we stop talking to our neighbours; simply that we [would] collaborate on an intergovernmental basis rather than being told what to do by the Brussels institutions.”

Substitute “London” for “Brussels”, and it could be any modern Scottish Nationalist politician making the same argument. Likewise, the logic of the recent Independence Declaration – that it is better “if decisions about Scotland’s future are taken by … the people of Scotland” – is that Scotland would be better off out of the European Union as well as the British one.

There is also a tendency to caricature eurosceptics. Many are perfectly rational, prejudice-free individuals who just happen to believe the UK should be sovereign and make all its own decisions, because that’s as it should be in the best of all possible worlds. Sound familiar?

But the principle of “independence”, whether for Scotland or the UK, remains an article of faith, and those who really believe in something like that are generally impervious to utilitarian arguments about the economy, jobs and international relations. They simply wish it to be so. It’s an instinct.

It’s also a perfectly respectable position, although generally comes unstuck when one tries to present the reasoning as utilitarian rather than existential. Thus eurosceptics depict Brussels regulations as out of sync with “British values”, while Scottish Nationalists say the same about Westminster legislation jarring with “Scottish values”.

Economics are also deployed, usually superficially. For example, the Conservative MP Chris Skidmore said this week it was feasible the UK could “flourish” outside the EU and the Common Market. Similarly, a major part of the Scottish Nationalist argument is a belief that Scotland would be much better off outside the UK.

Both are obviously simplistic positions, although clearly arguments can be made either way. The interesting thing is that both groups of independence-seekers are developing more nuanced positions. The SNP, for example, has long since come to terms with some aspects of the British Union, be it regal, monetary, regulatory, or social.

Many eurosceptics, meanwhile, have decided that a return to the “Common Market” concept of European co-operation is preferable to full withdrawal. Former defence secretary Liam Fox, for example, makes this point. Indeed, what the Prime Minister will eventually try to do is stake out the middle ground, depicting Ukip-ers as extremists while maintaining that the “status quo is not an option”.

Thus Cameron hopes to present himself as a sort of Euro devo-maxer, advocating significant autonomy for the UK while remaining part of the EU. It suits Salmond (who would probably prefer to be advancing a devo-max argument within Scotland) to depict the Prime Minister as trying to engineer a complete exit from Brussels control, but that is far from the case.

In reality, devo-max isn’t a practical proposition either within the UK or the EU, for it amounts, in political terms, to attempting to have your cake and eat it. Cameron’s wish-list of powers he wants repatriated from Brussels is precisely that; he may secure some token concessions with the help of Germany and the Netherlands, but the idea of wriggling free of any social or employment legislation is a pipe dream.

But then the European referendum is not about principle but party management, not one of Cameron’s (unlike Salmond’s) strong points. In this respect, as others have observed, he finds himself in a similar position to Harold Wilson, none other than Salmond’s political hero.

At least Wilson got it out of the way relatively quickly, holding his referendum – also on “renegotiated terms” – less than a year after winning the October 1974 general election. And like Wilson, it seems Cameron is relaxed about his ministers adopting whatever position they like. Wilson pulled it off, but Cameron’s prospects can’t be nearly as good.

At the end of the day, the Prime Minister and First Minister – talented politicians with more in common than either would like to admit – have been compelled to hold referendums both would rather have avoided; Cameron has been forced into it by a fractious party, and Salmond by the electorate.

That isn’t to say either is a bad idea. Constitutionitis has afflicted the UK for so long that it’s certainly worth trying to get it under control by settling the Scottish and European questions via plebiscites. But those in the rest of the UK should hold on to their seats – they’re in for a bumpy, and all-too familiar, ride.