The debate on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union has properly begun. In these early days of the debate David Cameron and Nicola Sturgeon have made an unusual partnership to try and add a Scottish question to the European one. The UUP is playing a game of public angst with the Scottish claims one of the issues they list for their dither as they frantically try to assess the direction of the wind.
The ability of Northern Ireland politics to take any issue and transform it into an internal proxy battle of who is the better Unionist (or Nationalist) should not be underestimated. However, it would not benefit either debate if we allowed it to descend to that. Thus, a proper examination of the Scottish question is worthwhile.
In UK terms, the promotion of this notion by the pro-EU campaign is unsurprising. Their strategy is to win by taking advantage of ‘inertia’ and ‘loss’. The British Social Attitudes survey shows a clear Eurosceptic majority. The middle ground (and thus a majority in the referendum) is dominated by those who wish the EU would/could be fixed. A legitimate desire but one that fails to appreciate the level of ideology behind the European Union ‘project’ – it doesn’t do self-reflection.
Therefore, the pro-EU campaign strategy is to secure enough of the sceptics by trying to sell Cameron’s deal, hold out the hope of more change and frame the rest of the debate on the potential for ‘loss’. The loss tactic has come to the fore. This is because Cameron’s deal is a dud and this in turn reduces the hope of something better in future. This has left the campaign relying on loss, loss and more loss as people who seek reform at least see some value in what they seek to reform.
The multiple difficulties and failures of the Eurozone and the EU also prevent the ‘Remain’ lobby from making much of a credible case for it as an institution. This may be an opportunity for the Leave campaign. If they can change the question in people’s minds to – if we weren’t a member would we join today – it may prove more fruitful for them.
Anyone who knows anything about referendums will fully appreciate the loss strategy’s power. However, the Scottish referendum is a classic example of how that strategy is not without risk. A campaign which went from a 70-30 lead to 55-45 was far from all-conquering and some in Scotland commented that the Better Together campaign had ‘won the battle but lost the war’. This left all of us who care about the Union with a long-term and bad hangover.
In England, the playing of a Scottish card has a risk of backfiring. A shift in English votes to the Tories and securing their majority is partially credited to an English fear of SNP control over a minority Labour government. These same voters may not appreciate the hanging of a claymore over their heads on the matter of the European Union.
However, should Unionists fall for this Sturgeon/Cameron double team?
First, a Unionist accepting this argument is allowing an avowed opponent of the Union to define it. Why would we consider an avowed opponent to be acting in the interests of the Union? Especially in what Kenny Farquharson highlighted is an illogical argument by Sturgeon – she wants an independent Scotland, she argues the UK voting to leave would trigger a second referendum and Scots would then endorse independence. However, she is going to campaign for the outcome that will stop all those things that she wants?
Also it was made crystal clear in the Scottish referendum that an independent Scotland would not inherit membership of the EU so whether the UK voted to leave or not it would not affect the SNP desire for an independent Scotland to be a member. Furthermore as all the nationalist/separatist parties in the UK are endorsing remain it is hard to see how the implication of anyone who goes for leave is a bad Unionist really flies.
Second, the SNP and especially Sturgeon made repeated reference to a ‘once in a lifetime’ opportunity of the 2014 referendum before and during the campaign. Now they are trying to get away in the EU smoke. Why should Unionists facilitate this?
Third, the SNP Westminster campaign was partly built on the message they would keep Cameron out of Downing Street. Now they are volunteering to be his referendum street warriors in Scotland and Sturgeon is offering to go throughout the UK to aid his cause. They are full participants in a Project Fear II, an approach they condemned. Again why should Unionism facilitate this hypocrisy?
Fourth, for those try to keep tabs on Scottish politics, it is ‘The Vow’ and not the EU that the SNP has been focusing its ire to stir up resentment in Scotland. Additionally in the time since the independence referendum the SNP economic case for independence has gone from dubious to toilet paper.
Fifth, we must examine the SNP. For all its rhetoric it always proceeds conservatively. Primacy has been the building and maintaining of their coalition. This is no easy act and harder to sustain over time. This is reflected in the limited manner in how it has governed and especially its refusal to use the extra powers it fought for. It is reflected in Sturgeon’s choice of words around a second referendum. It is “almost certain” if the UK voted to leave. Why the limitation of “almost”? The limitation is because there is a sizeable minority of people who will happily vote SNP but don’t want a second referendum.
Sixth, whether it is a genuine threat from Sturgeon or not, it is still a threat. The Scottish vote was upheld, if Scotland had voted for independence it would have been upheld. We should surely stand for a pan-UK democratic decision to be upheld and not allow others to create unrecognised vetoes.
Unionism’s Scottish problem was not and is not an EU problem. Unionism’s Scottish problem has been wishful thinking after the referendum that the threat had gone away. 45% doesn’t win a referendum but it does win a lot of Westminster seats and the parties of Scottish Unionism sleep walked into that tsunami.
Unionism’s Scottish problem has been a lack of vision, strategy and organisation. Unionism’s answer cannot be to cower in the corner and plead with the SNP “Please don’t hurt me”. Unionism needs confident, strategic, organised and future focused entities in Scotland to fight everyday with the support of their friends and fellow Unionists elsewhere in the UK. We cannot just remember about the SNP at referendums. Perhaps in the creation of this Scottish bogeyman Sturgeon may help Unionism to realise this.