Scotland, Europe and the British sovereignty delusion

Harold Wilson, architect of the last UK referendum on EU membership four decades ago, memorably said: “A week is a long time in politics.” Just over a week into the 2016 referendum campaign and, with 16 weeks to go to polling day on June 23, it feels like eternity already.

For Scots, many of the same arguments – about nationalism, sovereignty, democracy, economic prosperity – that engaged them for two years in the run-up to the independence referendum of 2014 are being rehearsed again. Several spent passions, not least fear and hope, are being rekindled.
And, already, the talk is of disinformation and bias. Much of this angry talk and counter-talk emanates from within the ruling Conservative cabinet of David Cameron. There’s not so much of this internecine strife within Scotland where the leaders of the five main parties support continued EU membership. Indeed, Nicola Sturgeon, first minister, has just delivered (in London) the most avowedly pro-EU speech of the campaign so far.

But the 2014 Scottish independence showed it may be fatal to allow oneself to be carried away by mythology, let alone kidology. Opinion polls – who believes them any more? – show Scottish voters consistently favouring EU membership by a large margin. The bookies are offering 1/10 on a Scottish Yes vote (and 2/5 or twice as good for England). There’s even the suggestion that a big Scots majority for ‘Remain’ could swing the overall UK outcome to Yes to the EU if the English are seriously split.

There are plenty of myths, however, about Scotland’s politics. One is that Scots are significantly more liberal and tolerant towards foreigners, another that they are natural pro-redistribution social democrats who prefer to pay more tax. Equally, opinion polls may well exaggerate their pro-EU sentiments that are much more muted in longer, more extensive social attitudes surveys. At least one poll ahead of the separate Scottish Parliament (Holyrood) elections on May 5 shows that the pro-#Brexit UKIP may win several seats. So, don’t count on the Scots.

What happens, then, nevertheless, if Scotland votes Remain and the rest of the UK Leave? A common assumption in EU capitals, not only in Edinburgh and London, is that Sturgeon would then call an #indyref2 – and win this time. Brussels would then be coping not only with the exit of one of its biggest members but the constitutional break-up of that country – and an unwelcome application for membership from Holyrood (on top of what may be happening in Barcelona).

Don’t count on the Scots and the Scottish National Party here either. Sturgeon is, as we say, nae fool; she must know that the monetary and fiscal obstacles (the absence of a secure currency and the budgetary black hole) that undid the pro-independence case in 2014 are even bigger now than then. (Oil at $30 a barrel does wonders for constitutional caution and leaves a €10bn gap in the budget – at least). What’s more, many in the SNP leadership covertly favour a federalist settlement in the UK rather than outright independence.

That means shared sovereignty – as now but with even deeper devolution/subsidiarity. And here we come to big conundrum on either side of the UK referendum debate: if Nicola Sturgeon and her party favour national sovereignty then why are they so passionately pro-EU? After all, it’s because they wish to regain sovereignty – “control over our borders” – that its supporters within the cabinet and elsewhere are fighting to Leave. The SNP came unstuck in the end in 2014 because its notion of sovereignty went with keeping the Queen, the Pound, Nato (without nuclear weapons in Scottish waters)…and it never solved that contradiction.

Now, too, the Brexiters would remain in all multi-lateral, transnational bodies that limit UK sovereignty – Nato, IMF, UN, WTO et al. And, no doubt, find that its “enhanced” sovereignty outside the EU came with less influence and power inside those bodies and in its dealings with allies and foes. The Brits, for their sins, whether English or Scots, are hung up on notions of sovereignty that date from 1648 – or before their own parliamentary union. Even if, as Sturgeon says, pooling sovereignty for mutual advantage is “the way of the modern world today.”

All she (and Cameron) have to do now is to explain the mutual advantage and shared solidarity that is to be derived from an EU re-erecting fences on its internal/national borders, struggling economically…But that’s for another day or week in politics.

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