David Torrance: Value of EU unlikely to flag

Breaking the Union with the UK may not entail breaking away from the EU ''Picture: Neil Hanna
Breaking the Union with the UK may not entail breaking away from the EU ''Picture: Neil Hanna
Share this article
Have your say

‘FOR the second time in her history”, declared a Scotsman editorial on 2 January 1973, “Scotland has joined a larger union.”

It was a reference, of course, to the 1707 Treaty of Union and the date – the first day of 1973 – on which the United Kingdom (of which Scotland was an integral part), along with Ireland and Denmark, joined the European Economic Community, or EEC, also known as the Common Market.

The Scotsman, however, noted that while “the fanfares for Europe ring out through the land, there is small sign of spontaneous joy”. It observed: “Doubt, resignation, apathy are far more apparent than enthusiasm for an historic step of far-reaching consequences.”

It continued: “In the EEC, Scotland will be on the periphery of a union of nine states. It will have no direct representation, unlike the poorer and less populous Republic of Ireland. It may, therefore, become a neglected region of the Community, unless the EEC develops a generous regional policy. On the other hand, Scotland may thrive on the economic opportunities of the European market.”

The editorial also viewed membership in the context of an ongoing debate about Scottish devolution. “Within the EEC”, it declared, “devolution becomes essential for Scotland’s survival.”

Domestic politics, however, meant debate still raged about whether the UK ought to be in Europe at all. In April 1975, the House of Commons once again voted on EEC membership. As in 1971, a majority voted for the government’s pro-Common Market recommendations, although a majority of Scottish MPs voted to withdraw.

All the SNP’s 11 MPs, for example, marched into the “no” lobby, for Scottish Nationalists were then opposed to being part of Europe, arguing that Scotland should only be in the EEC on its own terms, rather than as part of the UK. “Feeling was also heightened by European centralisation,” recalled the SNP politician Gordon Wilson, “that was anathema to SNP members who had been fighting London control and saw little benefit in exchanging that jack boot for a European model.”

Nevertheless, a referendum was held on 5 June 1975, the first time a referendum would be held throughout the UK, and the only one until the AV ballot in May 2011 (it remains the only time British voters have been directly consulted on European membership). Both the “no” and “yes” campaigns were energetic and high-profile; the prime minister even allowed his ministers to campaign on either side.

The result of the referendum was decisive, with 67.2 per cent of voters expressing support for continued membership of the EEC on a 65 per cent turnout. In Scotland, the “no” vote was significantly higher than the UK as a whole, at 41.6 rather than 32.8 per cent. The “yes” vote, meanwhile, was 58.4 per cent, nearly 9 per cent lower than the rest of the country. Of all the parts of the UK, only the Western Isles and Shetland voted “no”, defying the national trend.

Soon, European funding was making its way to Scotland, including via the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) established by the UK’s European Commissioner (and former Scottish Labour MP) George Thomson. In Brussels, meanwhile, the Scottish Office was often included in the UK’s ministerial delegation, particularly when fishing was on the negotiating table.

In June 1979, the European Parliament was also directly elected for the first time, a few weeks after Margaret Thatcher – who would become an important figure in European politics – became the UK’s first female prime minister. Turnout across the UK was just 32.7 per cent, but slightly higher in Scotland at 36.6 per cent. The Conservatives won – the last time they would top the poll in a Scottish contest – securing five out of eight seats.

Winnie Ewing was also returned, her win neatly coinciding with the allocation of more than £21 million in ERDF cash to various projects in the Highlands and Islands. After 12 years of “often bitter argument”, meanwhile, a Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) was finally agreed in early 1983.

Although it was difficult to calculate a profit-and-loss account for Scottish membership of the EEC, Peter Jones of the Aberdeen Press and Journal gave an estimate before the 1984 elections to the European Parliament. He calculated that in 1983 Scotland had made a “profit” of about £85m, or £17 per head, contributing (gross) £325m to the EEC but receiving (re)funds worth around £410m.

As the 1980s wore on, the EEC expanded and evolved, as did the views of Scotland’s political parties. Fittingly, Labour MP Bruce Millan’s resignation from Westminster to become one of the UK’s commissioners sparked a by-election in Glasgow Govan, which was won by Jim Sillars, a fiery orator and architect of the SNP’s decision to support “independence in Europe”.

Meanwhile, Millan oversaw an expanded pot of European structural funding. One category, “Objective 1”, was available to regions with GDP no more than 75 per cent of the EEC’s.

The Highlands and Islands qualified and had already applied, although its bid had been unsuccessful. In 1989, however, it succeeded following a second attempt. Winnie Ewing, whom Le Monde dubbed “Madame Ecosse”, had played a high-profile role securing the status.

In the late 1980s, and early 1990s public, political and media interest in European affairs was perhaps at its height. With a growing sense of national identity (if not support for independence), this was particularly true in Scotland, where a debate over whether its interests would be better served by remaining in the UK or reverting to its historical status as a small state within an interconnected Europe, reached new heights.

When the UK held the rotating presidency of the European Council in 1992, Scotland was also brought to the attention of the wider EU with a December gathering in Edinburgh. John Major said it would be remembered “as the summit that put the Community back together and put us all back on the track for recovery”. It also boosted the city’s international reputation. “This stunning capital city of Edinburgh has been seen on televisions all over Europe and beyond,” observed the then Scottish secretary Ian Lang.

Pro-devolution campaigners also took advantage of Europe-wide media attention to stage a 25,000-strong march through the middle of Edinburgh as European leaders convened at Holyrood Palace. Alex Salmond, the SNP leader, said it offered a “chance to tell the world that the solution to the Scottish question is independence in Europe”.

Finally, in May 1999, Scots elected a devolved parliament, while on 1 July 1999 – so-called “Devolution Day” – Scotland House was opened at 6 Rond-Point Schuman in Brussels, not far from the EU Institutions. This was to be the joint headquarters of the Scottish Executive (the new devolved Scottish government) and Scotland Europa, which lobbied the European Commission in order to further Scottish interests in Europe.

As the UK moved towards its 40th year in the EU, polls suggested Scots, in contrast to the 1975 referendum, were among the UK’s most enthusiastic Europeans, while a twin-track debate – as in the 1970s – continued to rage about Scotland’s place in the UK, and the UK’s place in Europe.

The European Commission restated its view in December 2012 that a hypothetical new state (such as an independent Scotland) would have to apply anew for EU membership. Others, such as the SNP, disagreed, conscious of the need to reassure undecided Scots ahead of the independence referendum in late 2014.

But whatever happens (and the commission is clear that remains an internal matter for the UK) after more than four decades’ involvement with the historic nations of Europe, the EU – in whatever form – seems likely to remain central to Scotland’s future.