You wait years for a referendum, and then…

Posted on January 24, 2013

A great roar had been predicted from the Tory benches at PMQs, and I gather that it was duly heard. I am relying on the reports from my office for this, as I was meeting with colleagues from PCS at the time, but I have no problem believing it.

David Cameron’s commitment that a future (mercifully as yet hypothetical) majority Tory government will commit to a referendum on membership of the European Union will be greeted with enthusiasm by his local constituency associations in every part of the UK where support has been leeching to UKIP. They know that the majority they seek in 2015, with which they hope to gain the power to finally consign the last ragged remnants of the welfare state to the dustbin of history, can only be achieved if those oily ticks out leafleting for Farage are sent packing. Never mind that they can’t get a single MP elected; they can drain support away from the true representatives of the loaded class in enough constituencies to thwart Tory aspirations.

But it is of course interesting to consider how this news will be greeted in Scotland, where we already have one referendum process to contend with, even if the debate is clearly yet to inspire many of the crucial “open-minded but unconvinced” voters who I am still confident can decide the outcome.

As David Torrance writes in an excellent piece on Newsnet Scotland, both Salmond and Cameron are winging it to a degree, asserting their ability to secure the negotiated outcome they want, in a vacuum of facts.

Jeff at Better Nation meanwhile warns of the danger for independence advocates in Scotland thinking of the EU vote as one which even involves us, given the work toward a Yes vote some three years before Cameron’s promised poll.

Tom Harris is amongst those pointing out that the Prime Minister has spent much of his limited attention span for Scotland claiming that a two-year referendum process is terribly long and will be awfully damaging. Hmm.

The SNP for their part… I’m currently watching the admirable Humza Yousaf on Newsnight Scotland giving not a whit more detail than Jackson Carlaw can muster on the actual terms of EU membership he eventually wants to see.

Few things seem certain to me as yet about how the long-anticipated debate on a European referendum will impact on the independence referendum here in Scotland. It seems possible that these two dynamic debates, emanating from Edinburgh and London political bubbles, will create chaotic interference patterns which disrupt the debate on both topics throughout these islands.

Good. It’s about time something did.

Certainly those who argue that we’re all ‘Better Together’ can no longer expect Scots voters to blink in fear at the prospect of uncertainty about our future relationship with Europe. But Jeff is quite right to argue that Scots’ involvement with the UK debate on Europe risks an implicit assumption that it’s through the UK that our relationship with Europe must forever be defined. It’s vital that we take responsibility in Scotland for our European debate. If those undecided voters, open to independence but not yet convinced, vote No in the expectation that they can then keep the UK in Europe and simultaneously put stronger home rule onto a constitutionally crowded UK political agenda, we will have missed a chance to shape our future relationship with both London and Brussels. I was already dubious that the UK parties would spare much mental space for further devolution if Scotland votes No, much less spend any political capital on it. The prospect of an EU referendum halfway through the 2015 Parliament (and don’t be surprised if Labour eventually offers something similar too) seals the deal. For Scotland, it’s 2014 or nothing.

One further point. These are not directly comparable choices being offered. David’s comparison of a renegotiated UK/EU deal with Devomax was clever, but a little misleading. Even the most enthusiastic Europhile would not argue that the EU is sovereign. It is generally agreed to be a pooling of member states’ sovereignty, whether viewed kindly or otherwise.

Scotland’s referendum is something different. It is an attempt to resolve the fundamental conflict between two models of sovereignty within the same state. Scotland tells itself that sovereignty lies with the people. In the UK, a very different story is told. What happens, as Elliott Bulmer put it, when the unstoppable force of Scottish popular sovereignty meets the immovable object of the sovereignty of the Crown in Parliament? This is a question which must be resolved, and I am convinced that a Yes vote is the best chance – indeed the only chance – we will have to do so for a generation.

1 Comment

  1. Hi Patrick, I enjoyed your talk the other night at the Admiral some interesting insights. Im already a registered volunteer for the Yes campaign. I will be happy to help out in any way I can, just ask.

    Comment by June Maxwell — January 24, 2013 @ 11:28 am