The Battle of Europe beckons. It will change Britain and Scotland whatever the result
Sunday Mail, May 31st 2015
Forty years ago next week, Britain entered a new era.
On June 5th 1975 Britain held its first nationwide referendum on whether to stay or leave, what was then called, the European Economic Community (EEC). The UK voted emphatically 67.2% to 32.8% to stay; Scotland voted 58.4% to 41.6% in favour.
This debate changed Britain in ways that continue to have ramifications. It began the constitutional practice of using referendums for big issues. The first had actually been two years previous on Northern Ireland, but it was the European vote which made waves.
Britain’s relationship with Europe and the world was never the same. The Commonwealth began to decline in trade and importance. Britain – seen as ‘the sick man of Europe’ – saw the continent, and the French and Germans in particular, as the future.
Yet, debate in 1975 was filled with political dishonesty. Britain had joined the EEC in 1973 without a referendum because this was seen as ‘unBritish’.
The 1975 vote came about because of Labour Party divisions and the left wing of the party viewing the EEC as ‘a capitalist club’ that it didn’t want membership of. The only way to unite the two wings of the party was for Prime Minister Harold Wilson to agree to a referendum, first suggested by Tony Benn.
European membership was sold to the British public as a ‘Common Market’ and ‘trading bloc’. This is how Wilson, Ted Heath and newly elected Tory leader Margaret Thatcher presented it in the 1975 campaign.
The political classes explicitly said there were no constitutional consequences from being part of Europe. This was a deception. The EEC was always from its founding Treaty of Rome more than a trading bloc, and about a political project.
Things began to change in the 1980s. Labour discovered the positive aspects of Europe in Jacques Delors’ ‘social Europe’. Margaret Thatcher after signing the Single European Act went in the opposite direction and railed against ‘socialism through the back door’ of Europe.
Scotland’s relationship with Europe has been just as convoluted. In 1975 the SNP campaigned for a No vote and withdrawal. Just as now they pondered what would happen if Scotland voted one way and the rest of the UK another. Then people thought it possible that Scotland would vote for withdrawal and the rest of the UK for staying in.
Since then the SNP, like Labour, discovered the redeeming features of Europe. In 1988 aided by Jim Sillars the party adopted ‘independence in Europe’, a policy which saw the Nationalists position themselves as pooling sovereignty and seeing Scotland on an international stage acting as an equal partner.
This SNP policy was enormously popular, high profile and had an intellectual coherence. All the more surprising then that, since this point, the SNP have not engaged in any substantive thinking about their position on Europe. And this when Europe has undergone so many changes over the last twenty-five years: from further expansion to the East and integration, to a widening democratic deficit.
Now we have the SNP suggest that, if Scotland votes to stay in Europe and the rest of the UK votes to come out, Scotland shouldn’t be dragged out of the union against its will.
That is good populist politics. Any British vote to come out of Europe in which Scotland voted to stay in would be a huge constitutional and political crisis for the UK. It would massively aid the SNP case for Scottish independence.
It is however highly likely that it isn’t going to happen. At least not in 2016 or 2017. British public opinion is very soft on Europe on both sides and a vote for the status quo is a vote to stay in. It is more than likely that rather like Scotland’s referendum, the UK votes to remain in Europe and it settles very little.
The next two years are going to be a high wire political act. David Cameron has to tour European capitals and come back with substantial powers and concessions beyond the tokenistic. Britain has few allies in Europe after years of haranguing and complaining from British delegations. No one yet in any continental government wants to see Britain leave, but will not go that extra mile for Britain.
Britain is going to have a debate even more fundamental and far-reaching than forty years ago. That will be nerve-racking for some, but like Scotland’s vote, it will be a positive. The British political classes will finally have to have a grown-up debate about Europe and Britain’s place in the world. And for Scotland that means seriously looking at to what extent we really want a different kind of relationship with Europe and with the rest of Britain too.