Euan McColm: Independence flag of convenience

Flags fly from the Jenners building in Edinburgh. Picture: TSPL
Flags fly from the Jenners building in Edinburgh. Picture: TSPL
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FAR from being embarrassed about Brussels, the SNP has pinned its hopes on May’s vote delivering an enormous boost for independence, writes Euan McColm

It didn’t seem a particularly hot ticket. A debate organised by the Law Society of Scotland between candidates in the forthcoming European parliamentary election promised to be a worthy but dull affair.

But the event in Edinburgh on Tuesday became headline news after the SNP’s participant allegedly attacked his own party for its position on Europe.

According to a number of those in attendance, Alyn Smith MEP told the audience that his party’s leadership had not only been mistaken in its previous (though now changed) position that an independent Scotland would automatically become a member of the EU, but that it should publicly admit as much. Furthermore, it was suggested, Smith had said he’d warned the party leadership about the weakness of its position.

From the Law Society’s Twitter account came: “@AlynSmithMEP says SNP made mistake saying Scot would be automatically in EU but believes its about dots and commas not principle.”

And Liberal Democrat MEP George Lyon issued a statement in which he said that Smith’s “admission” was “refreshing”, and added: “The frustration that Alyn Smith feels about the lack of honesty from the SNP’s leadership is revealing. It shows that the SNP are prepared to say and do anything to win the referendum.”

Smith, however, was having none of it, and categorically denied saying either that the SNP should own up to a mistake or that he had advised the leadership that EU membership would not be ­automatic. First Minister Alex Salmond denied any tension on the matter within the SNP. His party’s target was to “win these European elections for Scotland”, which would then make its mark on the EU.

In fact, the SNP has long since softened its position on EU membership. Its vision of the future once saw ­Scotland continue as a member on the basis that having joined as part of the UK it would be allowed to stay. Now it tells of us of being welcomed with open arms, able to negotiate a great deal on the basis of the richness of our ­resources.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the Law Society debate is that it had to stray into the area of the referendum before throwing up a newsworthy line. But, then, the European election on 22 May is not, in Scottish terms, much about legislation created in Brussels. Instead, inevitably, it’s about September’s independence referendum.

Scotland returns six members to the European Parliament. Currently there are two each from the SNP and Labour while the Tories and Liberal Democrats have one apiece.

The way things stand, the SNP looks likely to increase its representation at the expense of the Lib Dems. A poll by ICM last week found the Nationalists ahead of Labour by 12 percentage points, with 41 per cent of the vote, compared with 29 per cent.

The Scottish Conservatives secured third place with 13 per cent, followed by Ukip on 6 per cent and the Lib Dems on 5 per cent.

For SNP candidate Smith, it is inevitable that the European election campaign should be dominated by the debate over the constitution. And it’s an inevitability that he welcomes.

“The result will be hugely significant in terms of the referendum,” he says.

“If I was going to choose an election to take place before the referendum, I’d choose the European Parliament election. It’s about where power lies and about Scotland’s place in the world.”

Furthermore, says Smith, it is an election whose result will most accurately reflect the political mood of the country.

“Every vote makes a difference to the final result. Unlike Westminster or Holy­rood where the country is divided into constituencies, every vote in the European election will count towards deciding which six people Scotland sends to Brussels.

“We will see clearly where support lies.”

The issue of EU membership has flitted in and out of the referendum debate. It’s a subject on which politicians make a number of assumptions about Scots, not least that, in stark contrast with England, we are a nation of enthusiastic Europhiles. The SNP has countered the No campaign’s insistence that joining Europe might not come easily to an independent Scotland. It claims that David Cameron’s promise of an in-out referendum on the issue, should the Conservatives return to government next year, means that far from jeopardising Scotland’s EU membership, a Yes vote would protect it.

Studies show that, in fact, a majority of Scots are in favour either of a less powerful European Union or of leaving. Forty per cent want a weaker EU, while 20 would have us tear up our membership.

Opponents – while also choosing to ignore a wide antipathy towards the EU among Scots – question the logic behind the SNP’s decision to place such importance on the parliament in Brussels.

Labour MEP David Martin says: “The Nationalists’ rejection of a legislature in England while supporting the European Parliament is classic my enemy’s enemy is my friend stuff. If England appears not so hot for Europe, then we should be.

“But what sense is there in saying we should not send politicians to make laws in Westminster but we should send them to Brussels?

“The SNP’s position, that they don’t want to share with our neighbours in England but they do want to share with 27 other nations, isn’t credible.”

Smith rejects the accusation that support for the EU is incompatible with the Nationalists’ political objective.

“We are saying clearly that we want to participate in Europe as a full member state, rather than as a region of a member state.”

Not only this, insists Smith, but the SNP has long had a strong association with the European Parliament. “All the way back to Winnie Ewing in the 1970s, our MEPs have been integral to the way the party operates. Europe is hugely important to us.”

Labour’s Martin believes that the European elections matter little to the SNP other than as part of the referendum campaign.

He says: “We, on the other hand, don’t want this to be about Scotland and the UK but about what the European Parliament can do and what Labour MEPs have achieved there.

“We’ve helped deliver a £6 billion ­Europe-wide scheme to help young people into work; we’ve taken action to curb the excesses of bank bosses, to clampdown on tax evasion, and to improve workers’ rights.”

And Martin says that during the campaign he has come across a streak of Euro­scepticism among Yes voters.

“I’m not suggesting it’s a majority but I do meet voters who want to know why the SNP is offering them a referendum on membership of the United Kingdom but not offering one on membership of the European Union.”

A senior Scottish Conservative strategist agrees that the SNP’s nationalism is at odds with its enthusiasm for the EU.

“There is a complete contradiction. The SNP can’t convincingly explain why they want no politicians at Westminster but do want them in Brussels. It’s another thing that exposes the lack of logic at the heart of the SNP’s strategy.

“It makes no sense that they are in favour of so many unions – the European Union, Nato, a social union with the rest of the UK – yet they want to break our union with the other nations of these islands.”

While their opponents may express frustration that the European election will be dominated by debate over September’s referendum, it’s an essential part of the SNP’s campaign.

Last year, senior SNP strategists agreed on a number of factors that might assist the Yes campaign to victory.

They believed that three factors might sway the electorate: a weak offer from unionist parties on further devolution, the likelihood that the Tories would win the 2015 General Election, and a surge for Ukip support in England.

So far, the SNP is ticking those boxes in order. Labour’s devolution commission failed to deliver a particularly distinctive or exciting offer of greater powers for Holyrood. It was a bitty affair that failed to address the possibilities offered by tax reduction (and, thus, failed to include anything liable to catch the attention of self-interested Scots).

And, despite Labour’s lead in the polls, there is a growing expectation – even among members of his party – that Ed Miliband will not win the next General Election.

A weak offer on devolution and a Tory PM set to return to office? All the SNP needs to complete its hat trick is for Ukip to do brilliantly in England (and very badly in Scotland) on the 22nd.

The SNP’s ideal outcome is one in which they can demonstrate – through the difference in levels of support for ­Nigel Farage’s party north and south of the Border – that Scotland has different priorities.

There may be considerable irony in that outcome being spun in such a way.

While the SNP and Ukip’s manifestos differ entirely, on everything from issues of social justice at home to aid overseas, both parties provide attractive homes for the voter who finds him or herself disillusioned with mainstream politics.

The Scottish Nationalists may point to a Ukip surge in England as being proof of differing priorities on either side of the Border when, in reality, it may be nothing more than proof of a current wave of anti-Westminster feeling.

Smith disagrees and insists that Ukip support in England should be taken to illustrate fundamental differences. His is the well-rehearsed argument in favour of the proposition that there are such things as uniquely Scottish values.

“I expect Ukip to do well in England and that will be significant,” says Smith. “In Scotland, we reject that sort of politics.

“If Ukip does especially well then it raises the prospect of them making inroads into Westminster. It creates the possibility that the next government of the UK could be a Tory/Ukip coalition and I believe that Scots will find that unappealing. The only way to guarantee we don’t find ourselves living under that sort of government is to vote Yes in September.”

The independence referendum may have added a little crackle to the European campaign but it remains to be seen whether Scots are fully engaged. In 2009, fewer than 30 per cent of voters turned out to select our MEPs. A similarly small level of participation on the 22nd would not produce the most accurate reflection of how the referendum vote might go.

Members of all main parties predict a huge turnout – perhaps even more than 90 per cent – in September. None predict a surge in the number who’ll turn out to send new representatives to Brussels.

Smith suggests there will be an increase, however. “People in Scotland are more engaged in politics than ever and I would expect that to be reflected,” he says. “And, really, after a turnout of less than a third last time, the only way to go is up.”

Labour’s Martin remains sceptical about whether what we might call “referendum fever” has infected the European campaign.

“It is difficult to tell whether it will make a huge difference. I am not certain, from the mixed responses I’ve been getting, whether voters on both sides of the constitutional debate will see this month’s election as an opportunity to lay down a marker for 18 September.”

But whether the result truly will give us any clues or not to the future, the SNP story is already written.

If, as expected, the party’s current MEPs – Smith and Ian Hudghton – are joined in Brussels by Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh, then its tale of a Scotland shifting further away from unionist tradition will be considerably boosted.

A Tory insider has an interesting take on the unionists’ best hopes.

“We expect to win back our seat. That’s not a concern. But we are concerned about how well the SNP does.

“In an ideal world, we would take that sixth seat from the Lib Dems but that’s not going to happen and so, may David Cameron forgive me, I hope that Labour wins it. Otherwise, whether we like it or not, the SNP will enjoy spinning the story that we’ve taken another giant step towards Scottish independence.” «