Euan McColm: A second referendum

David Cameron arrives at the summit in Riga. Picture: PA
David Cameron arrives at the summit in Riga. Picture: PA
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Just months after the vote on independence, another split-or-stay campaign is already under way as battle lines are drawn over EU membership, writes Euan McColm

ONE of the greatest achievements of the character Jim Hacker in the classic television sitcom Yes Minister was his successful campaign to save the “great British banger” from meddling Brussels bureaucrats.

David Cameron posing for a photograph with other European leaders. Picture: PA

David Cameron posing for a photograph with other European leaders. Picture: PA

The story ran that the European Commission planned to force butchers to rename sausages “emulsified high-fat offal tubes” and Hacker was just the man to defeat such madness. This he duly did, saving the British breakfast from those awful continental types and enhancing his career no end.

Like the best comedy, this story was funny because it was true. Or, in this instance, because it seemed plausible that it might be true.

For decades, a particularly popular British take on the European Union has been that it exists to meddle, to impose ludicrous rules – bananas must not be curved, Christmas must be renamed – and to generally mess up our traditional way of life, whatever that may be. The “debate” over Europe, such as it was, was the preserve of obsessives, right-wing Little Englanders who were cross about having to use metric measurements, or uptight left-wingers with an unusual fondness for rules and regulations.

But now the EU, and how it impacts on all of our lives, is something we will have to discuss seriously.

‘If the UK votes to leave, then the UK will leave: all parts of the UK’

Having won a majority in the general election, Prime Minister David Cameron is preparing to hold an in-out referendum on the UK’s membership. And the Prime Minister – who so long as he wins concessions from the EU on British membership, will call for the UK to remain a member of the EU – has already begun his campaign.

Speaking at an EU summit in Latvia on Friday, Cameron said that getting his promised “better deal” for the UK “won’t be easy” but that he was confident he could achieve it.

He had not, he said, been greeted “by a wall of love” when he met his fellow EU leaders for the first time since the general election.

The Prime Minister gave the impression that he was up against considerable odds but the reality may be rather different.

Yes Minister, which lampooned Brussels red tape. Picture: BBC

Yes Minister, which lampooned Brussels red tape. Picture: BBC

Cameron, a pro-European at the head of a party which contains a substantial number of Eurosceptics – even downright Europhobes – has a political game to play. One Tory insider explained: “The PM doesn’t want the UK to leave Europe, obviously, but he’s promised to win concessions on our membership so he’s going to set the stage so that it looks like he’s fighting hard.

“He’s making it look like he’s up against it to keep the Eurosceptics happy.”

The Prime Minister has said he wants to cut red tape, achieve concessions on issues such as welfare and immigration, and secure an opt-out from further integration. Cameron has left himself some room for manoeuvre.

Scots with referendum fatigue after last year’s vote on independence can expect campaigning on whether the UK should remain inside Europe to begin within weeks. With a vote likely to be held in 2017, those on either side of the argument insist there is no time for complacency.

Matthew Anderson, an Edinburgh-based businessman, is determined that the case for remaining a part of the EU is made as fully – and as positively – as possible. Anderson has been working with others in business, north and south of the Border, in recent months to establish the campaign group “Positives for EU”. The organisation will run a distinctively Scottish campaign for retention of EU membership.

While politicians on the pro-EU side will prosecute their own cases, Anderson believes there is a role for a grassroots movement, not dissimilar to the Yes Scotland campaign that – unsuccessfully – fought in favour of Scottish independence last year.

He said: “The simple idea behind this campaign is to bring positivity to the discussion. We will talk about the positive things that the EU has meant for people, in terms of democracy, prosperity and security; hugely important things such as the record on human rights.

“If we constantly talk about things breaking down, about the negative, we lose sight of the positive things to come, the future benefits of remaining inside the European Union.”

But didn’t a relentlessly positive campaign fail in last year’s independence referendum? Wasn’t it the case that the starker warnings of the implications of Scotland breaking from the UK proved to be the winning arguments?

Anderson points to how far the pro-independence campaign shifted in the polls during that campaign.

He said: “The positive messaging from the Yes campaign was important. What happened wasn’t necessarily a loss in every way. It raised awareness, made people more literate, more engaged. The indyref woke people up.”

Arthur Misty Thackeray – Scottish chairman of the anti-EU political party Ukip – is equally keen to begin the battle over the UK’s future relationship with Europe.

Thackeray said: “We are already working on our campaign – we’ve been working towards this for 21 years now.

“I’m confident we’ll find support in Scotland for our arguments. There is a myth that Scots are more pro-Europe than others in the UK, when they are actually just as Eurosceptic.”

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has said that she believes the constituent countries of the UK should have a veto on any decision to leave the EU if they vote to stay in the face of a UK-wide decision to leave. Cameron has rejected this, but SNP sources say this will continue to be the party’s position. Some in the SNP believe a UK vote to exit Europe and a Scottish vote to stay could be the trigger for a second independence referendum. It’s certainly a potential argument which Sturgeon is not ready to set aside.

Thackeray is dismissive of the very idea. “The UK is the member state. It is as simple as that. If the UK votes to leave, then the UK will leave: all parts of the UK will leave.”

Though Anderson will be on the opposite side of the argument to Thackeray, he agrees that the assumption Scots have a fundamentally different view of Europe to that held by others in the UK is wrong.

He said: “The biggest risk to the Scottish campaign to stay in Europe is complacency, that we assume, as people have, that Scots are overwhelmingly in favour of staying in Europe. But the fact is that half of Scots are either against or are ‘don’t knows’. There is a campaign to be run, a serious campaign.

“We have a story to tell about the EU, about the benefits of membership, and we must make that case.”

The SNP made much during the independence referendum of the fact that the Labour Party campaign alongside the Conservative Party for a No vote. Scottish Labour was dismissed as “the red Tories” by former first minister Alex Salmond and his successor, Nicola Sturgeon, but now those politicians and other nationalists will find themselves on the same side as a Conservative Prime Minister.

Surely there is some hypocrisy in this stance? An SNP source insists not, though the explanation for why this might be the case appears to involve dancing on the head of a pin.

The source said: “There is a difference between sharing a platform with someone and being part of the same formal campaign.”

A subtle difference, perhaps.

The same source added: “But this campaign shouldn’t be fronted up only by politicians. The SNP will play its part but so will a lot of different organisations. “One thing is for sure – neither David Cameron nor George Osborne should be at the front of the campaign in Scotland.”

The Scottish Nationalists’ insistence that a Yes vote north of the Border in contrast to a No vote elsewhere should mean a veto will remain their position throughout, though the party, like Anderson and Thackeray, accepts that it would be a mistake to assume that Scots will vote overwhelmingly in favour of remaining part of the EU.

The source said: “This is a campaign that requires to be run – it would be a big mistake to think you could win it by default.

“That’s what the Better Together campaign assumed last year and it wasn’t until the referendum drew closer that they realised they had to start making a positive case for the UK. We have to make a positive case for staying in the EU from the start and we have to keep that campaign going with the right tenor, the right tone – and the right content.”

David Cameron will this week travel to Berlin and Paris to discuss with his German and French counterparts Britain’s place in Europe, while tomorrow he will host European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker at his country residence, Chequers.

Speaking on Friday, the PM said he expected “lots of ups and downs” in the weeks ahead.

He added: “I do not expect to find agreed solutions straight away. These talks will require patience and tenacity. But by working together in the right spirit and sticking at it, I believe we can reform the EU and our relationship with it. And then the British people will have the final say. They will decide.”

There has been some speculation that the Prime Minister might bring forward the EU referendum to next year but last night Downing Street sources told Scotland on Sunday that this was unlikely.

A source close to the Prime Minister said: “The most likely scenario remains for the question to be asked in 2017. There has been some speculation that we might hold the referendum next year, perhaps even on the same day as the next Holyrood election, but it is important that this referendum has its day in the sun, just as the independence referendum did last year.”

Ukip’s Thackeray remains optimistic that his party can help secure a vote in favour of leaving the EU while keeping the UK together.

He said: “The SNP is very good at turning everything into an opportunity to push for independence but we will be careful not to play into their hands.

“We will make the case for leaving the EU forcefully and I believe people will listen to it. I think we will see a good turnout in this referendum, particularly among those who feel that Europe isn’t working for us.

“People are more engaged with this subject than ever before.”

Matthew Anderson believes Positives for EU and other pro-Europe groups can tell a compelling story that can win the day.

“We are working hard on this, putting together a broad team of people who’ll be making the case.

“We’ll be bringing forward respected voices from a number of fields. Four weeks from now, we’ll be ready to go.

“I believe we can tell the positive, progressive story in this campaign. We don’t take for granted Scottish support for remaining part of Europe. We know that the arguments in favour must be laid out and I believe we will create a grassroots movement that shares the positive story about Europe.”

He added: “People in Scotland remain to be convinced just as much as people in England do and we want to engage with them, to give them the information they want and to encourage the debate.

“So much of what people are told about Europe is negative but we want to tell a different story about how Europe has benefited us all. There will be no scaremongering about what departure might mean but clear information about how membership has improved our country and can continue to benefit us.”

Two years from now, if the Prime Minister’s plans stay on schedule, we will be on the brink of making a decision that could end a relationship that began in 1973 when Britain joined the European Economic Community. Two years after that, in a referendum, more than two-thirds supported continued membership of the common market.

But it’s a long time since that affirmation of support for Europe took place. Whether Britain retains its place in the EU or leaves is far from certain.

Scots may have felt that, after last year’s vote on independence, a period of calm was in order but, as both sides limber up for a battle that could change the UK’s relationship with its closest partners, there seems little chance of that.