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The choice under Cameron: Less Europe or No Europe

23/01/2013

All I can think of today is George Robertson’s infamous utterance, eighteen years ago, that devolution would ‘kill Nationalism stone dead’. Today there’s a majority for the SNP in the Scottish Parliament – whose electoral system was designed to prevent that from happening – and a referendum on independence is coming next year.

So I have yet to discern quite what David Cameron is playing at with his proposed referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU.

Isn’t it funny, that when his own backbenchers were calling for the very same thing, the Prime Minister was deaf to their calls? Isn’t it funny, that when UKIP’s support level in opinion polls is roughly equal to the Conservatives’ defecit against Labour, Cameron suddenly finds the time to muse on matters European?

And that, I fear, is why his plan is doomed. It’s contingent on two things: a Tory majority in 2015 (not impossible, but at this stage, I’d rate it as unlikely); and a favourable renegotiation of the UK’s terms of EU membership. Now, leaving aside the consequences of the second of those things not happening (how will he react then?), let’s assume that we get to a point where that referendum takes place.

It’s clear that the EU is not popular in the UK (and I do mean the UK: while England may be particularly sceptical, and the old tensions in Northern Ireland colour people’s view of Europe, you don’t see many people throwing Europe Day parties in Scotland and Wales). But there are some who favour it, who think that it still can be a force for good. They will be forced to choose between less Europe or none at all. Euro-enthusiasts have already lost this referendum, years before it has been formally called.

Of course, by opposing a referendum outright, Ed Miliband has harmed his case – again, look to Scotland’s political history: opposing a referendum didn’t do much for Jack McConnell in 2007 or Iain Gray in 2011. People like being asked the question: any opinion poll that asks people if they want a referendum on almost any matter produce a lead in favour. And the LibDems, having called for an in/out referendum in Opposition now have to explain why a referendum now (or in a few years) would be bad. That opinion poll defecit, and even UKIP support, may well drop for a time.

But strategically, Cameron has acted foolishly. Having tried to duck the question of Europe since 2005, Cameron now faces a discourse where Europe plays a new prominence – as the Constitution does in Scotland. And by not going the whole hog and calling for withdrawal, he now gives those in the ‘Out’ camp added prominence. Step forward, Nigel Farage and UKIP. Instead of sidelining UKIP, he’s given them what they want: Farage can (and is already trying to) claim a victory, arguing that this vote wouldn’t be possible without UKIP pressure.

And if he loses the vote, he humiliates himself and the Tory Party: and gives UKIP even greater relevance. Just as it’s likely that the SNP would continue in some form after independence, so UKIP could continue after EU withdrawal. But even if he wins, what then? A narrative would have been established: a debate between less Europe and no Europe. Just as the (unsuccessful according to the Cunningham Amendment) 1979 referendum on a Scottish Assembly spawned a campaign for a Scottish Parliament, which culminated in the 1997 vote, and the Parliament that was established then formed the Calman Commission in 2007, and Calman was overtaken by the event of a pro-independence majority being elected in 2011, so there will be another campaign for even fewer powers ten years down the line. Indeed, just eight years after the 1975 Common Market referendum, Labour went into an election calling to quit. And just a few years later, one of the biggest supporters of the Common Market in that 1975 poll made a speech in Bruges opposing further European integration. So this won’t kill the issue, and it won’t kill UKIP.

Then there’s that other referendum, taking place next year. It’s interesting David Cameron opposes holding an EU referendum now as, with a Europe-wide flux in progress, it isn’t clear what it is that people would be voting to stay in or leave. But neither his party nor Labour have set out clear proposals for what would happen in the event of a ‘No’ vote in 2014, other than vague promises of further powers. So it’s OK for Scottish voters to cast a ‘No’ vote with unclear consequences, but on the EU, there has to be delay and a full renegotiation before the ballot.

And as has already been said, we’re used to hearing that where Scotland and the EU is concerned, the status quo is best and can only be guaranteed with a ‘No’ vote. Now, that isn’t the case and there will doubtless be people musing on the effects of, four years after the independence referendum, a Scotland voting to remain in the EU but being dragged out by a UK-wide majority voting to exit. This might well push a few non-Eurosceptic undecideds into the ‘Yes’ camp, and a few ‘No’ supporters into ‘Undecided’.

So he might have burned Labour and may even have stolen a march on Nigel Farage today, but looking further ahead, he’s undermined Better Together, given new impetus to UKIP, guaranteed that this issue will chunter along in the press for another five years and commenced a series of rows that will only conclude when the UK has finally out of the EU (whether it takes place before 2018 or at some point in the future)… an ever-decreasing Europe.

Tam Dalyell described devolution as a motorway to independence with no U-turns and no exits – David Cameron’s policy on Europe looks to me like a motorway with only exits.

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3 Comments
  1. Nice to see you back blogging!

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