On Tuesday morning, having had my fill of constitutional politics over the weekend at SNP conference, I decided to stop blogging on all things independence for a week or so. There are after all many other political and topical issues which get neglected – and some, believe it or not, of greater current import than what will happen two years’ hence. So, I tweeted this.
Before two SNP MSPs resigned the whip over the decision in the Great NATO Debate.
Before the Depute First Minister stood up in Parliament to announce, among other things, that she had commissioned specific legal advice on independent Scotland’s right (or otherwise) to continue or join the European Union.
Before someone remembered that the First Minister had been interviewed by Andrew Neil in March and appeared to suggest that such legal advice was already available to the Scottish Government.
Before Labour issued a press release accusing the FM of being a “bare-faced” liar. And before the FM was dragged back to the Parliamentary Chamber to explain himself.
Since then, the political chat has been of little else. And the debate on our constitutional future remains fixated on procedural matters of little interest to people in their daily lives. The big issue of substance – whether or not membership of the EU is desirable, either as part of the UK or if we go it alone, remains sidelined.
We are almost oblivious up here that this is fast becoming a key matter in UK politics. This week, Westminster debated the desirability of continuing EU membership for the UK in a move engineered by backbench Conservative MPs. There is an irony here in that by the time we get to independence, the UK itself might not be a member, or at least be negotiating its way out of membership. Some of the semantics dominating the constitutional debate might be moot by 2016.
As a fully paid up Europhile and indeed, advocate of European Union membership, all this little islander stuff worries me. I don’t get why others are so hostile to the idea and the reality of a strong, enduring and close economic, social and political union. The Tories, reverting to type, have signalled this issue as a key political one for them in the run up to the UK General Election in 2015. Two weeks ago, the Home Secretary Teresa May signalled intent to repatriate justice powers, conveniently ignoring the fact that such inter-European co-operation on terrorism, human trafficking, intelligence and policing is vital to our security and well-being. Without it and powers such as the European Arrest Warrant, we will be fighting organised crime in arms, drugs and human trade in particular, with one hand tied behind our backs. Tackling paedophilia and its cyber nature is one area where policing across states, without boundaries is absolutely essential.
Yet, they do appear to have tapped into a public mood of disenchantment with EU membership. The most recent Eurobarometer conducted in June 2012 found that almost as many people in the UK thought membership a bad thing as thought it a good thing (30% compared to 33% respectively). And when asked to cite the most important elements that make up European identity, the views of UK respondents differed from respondents across the EU, not just in content but also in enthusiasm.
Our distrust appears to be borne of ignorance, largely helped by an unwilling and disengaged UK media, which fails to report anything meaningful of what goes on over there in Brussels and Strasbourg. When they do report – as the Daily Mail and its ilk are wont to – the line is inherently negative and often ill and mis-informed. When asked in the Eurobarometer to say when the next European elections will be held, only 7% of UK respondents knew they would be in 2014 with over three-quarters saying they didn’t know the date, and 63% in the UK couldn’t name any European institutions. We know and care little of what goes on in our name across the water, it seems.
We do not have a Scottish breakdown for the Eurobarometer but public opinion here also appears to have shifted from generally positive to at best, lukewarm in terms of an independent Scotland being a member of the EU. One of the reasons might be that no one, in any party, has begun the process of explaining what membership means, what being independent outwith EU membership means, and indeed, how we as an independent country might arrive at either destination. And until the parties allow us to weigh up the options and look at the positives and negatives and decide for ourselves, we will remain none the wiser.
The No camp has a particular vested interest in keeping the matter of EU membership firmly on the process. Would an independent Scotland automatically assume membership with no changes to current budgetary arrangements and opt-outs, or would we have to apply with the conditions of adherence to Schengen and to join the Euro when we meet the criteria coming into play? For the No camp to seek to use the implications of having to apply afresh for membership to further scare monger the Scottish people into accepting the status quo is disingenuous. It ignores the very serious attempts going on down south to withdraw the UK wholesale from membership and also ignores the fact that with our resources, an independent Scotland would be welcomed into the EU with open arms. Spain might be blustering now, but it is hardly going to be in a dominant position politically to call the shots on this. One of the things which the EU does very well, which is rather alien to politics here, is compromise; ways are always found of squaring circles and accommodating difficult issues and disagreement. That’s the beauty of being in a collective – the small nations often have as much muscle and power as the big ones.
But to get to a place where we are able to weigh all this up, we need to get into the substantive debate about the implications of membership. Currently, we are stuck in second gear with the dominant political issue of the day being who sought advice on what and when. The parties might wish to stay where we are, forever revving our engines but going nowhere fast, but it will not enable the Scottish people to arrive at our chosen constitutional destination confident that we chose the correct route.
We need a debate here in Scotland on EU membership, both as a constituent part of the UK and as a potentially independent state. I know what I’d vote for in a referendum in either circumstance. What’s your view?