Gerry Hassan: Euro-sceptics may be the real petty nationalists

David Cameron: wants Britain to learn from Germany
David Cameron: wants Britain to learn from Germany
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The UK’s relationship with the EU is under pressure and Scots may have to consider whether they want part of a detached little Britain, writes Gerry Hassan

Europe has been in the headlines in the last two weeks. There was Alex Salmond’s little legal controversy on EU matters, followed by David Cameron’s problems with his backbenchers on Europe.

If it is possible to rise above Scots insularity and petty partisanship, which we have seen in the last week, it would be helpful to note the wider European and international dimension in which the Scottish self-government and independence debate is now located.

This is about how Scotland sees itself and its values, relationships and alliances across Europe and globally.

Countries all over the word rethink and reposition themselves all the time. Finland has done so several times in the 20th century, as has Turkey, and the central European countries after communism.

This week, Britain’s problematic relationship with the European Union took another significant turn, with Cameron defeated for the first time in this parliament as his Euro-sceptics voted with the Labour opposition on the EU budget.

This has caused Cameron huge problems with his party and thrown up questions about his leadership, but it is a product of deeper, historic dynamics than present-day politics.

Britain’s strange relationship with Europe pre-exists the EU. The UK has long had trouble in seeing itself as a European country, for centuries viewing Europe as a warring, divisive continent of hostile interests, in turn fighting the Spaniards, the French, and, over two world wars, the Germans. This led Britain to see itself as a “world island” that had bigger horizons, most importantly, the Commonwealth and the “special relationship” with the United States.

The UK eventually joined the EEC, or Common Market as it was in 1973, at the third attempt. By then the Franco-German axis had become institutionalised in the corridors of Brussels and Britain was never quite trusted. It was always seen as the reluctant European trying to spoil the party – an image the UK has been more than happy to play up to.

The dynamics became more pronounced in the late 1980s with Jacques Delors’ “social Europe”, an agenda that Margaret Thatcher characterised in her 1988 Bruges speech as “socialism by the back door”. This speech, along with Labour’s conversion to being pro-European, dramatically changed the debate and was seen as a clarion call to the emerging Tory Euro-sceptics.

Thus began the modern-day Tory obsession with Europe.

There was the Maastricht treaty, John Major and trouble with his “bastards”, as he called his rebels. Then along came Cameron who, in opposition, challenged the Tory party to “stop banging on about Europe”. It hasn’t worked because an unfolding eurozone crisis has given permission for the deep Euro-scepticism of parts of the Tories to let rip with their prejudice.

This has become the Tory mainstream: Home Secretary Theresa May announcing her intention to opt out of 130 European justice measures, a UK government “audit” of EU powers and their impact on the UK, and Tory loathing of a whole host of European institutions from the Charter of Fundamental Rights to the European Court of Justice and European Court of Human Rights, the last of which is not connected to the EU and covers every European state except Belarus.

Britain’s relationship with the EU has to be resolved and the only way is via a referendum. In this, the Tory Party, growing more Euro-sceptic by the year, will either position itself for withdrawal, or a dramatic detachment of the UK from Europe.

This matters to the Scottish debate because it has consequences for what kind of country the UK is and what kind of nation Scotland aspires to be.

Scottish self-government is about a number of external dimensions. First, there is the British element, and the problem with the British state, centralisation and over-concentration of power in London and the south-east of England.

Second, is how Scotland sees itself as a European nation. Third, is the American-Atlanticist tradition, from the challenge of defence, security and Trident, from the issue of NATO membership to the world of American-style market fundamentalism that has so damaged British society and politics.

Fourth, is the Commonwealth, and connections made through the legacy of empire and today’s trade and commerce. And finally, there is the northern European dimension of small-nation social democracy.

Scotland increasingly sees itself as a part of each of these intersecting circles, historically similar to the way the UK used to see itself as a “world island” before it became introverted and happy to talk to itself.

The UK European referendum will be a defining point on whether that British inward retreat becomes irreversible or not.

The European and Scottish referenda are interconnected. They are about what kind of country and unions people want to inhabit.

Many Euro-sceptics want to withdraw from the EU but defend an unreformed British union in the name of an absolutist, out-of-date notion of sovereignty. The Scottish independence perspective is about a Scotland of soft power in a multiplicity of unions, comfortable with the idea of shared sovereignties.

The only separatists in this argument are the “little Britainers” and “little Englanders” who imagine a fantasyland UK pulling out of Europe and relocating itself into the mid-Atlantic as a tax-cutting, deregulating, free-marketeer country.

Any potential UK withdrawal from the EU, of course, won’t happen before 2014, but what kind of country the UK is has huge consequences for how we decide what we want Scotland to be.

For years, Scots of all persuasions have thought they have the power to decide their future, their degree of self-government, and how we express our desire to be a modern, European country. But it isn’t that simple.

For what do we do if the real, petty, dogmatic and insular nationalists turn out to be those running Westminster?