In September, Scotland will vote on whether to become an independent country. The country is alive with conversation. Politics is interesting once more. And so whilst you might expect that debate to drown out the European election, it seems more likely that this will be the most anticipated European vote in the country, possibly ever.
Let’s start with some basic facts. Despite having around 5 million people, Scotland has only 6 MEPs – the same number as Malta, which is about a tenth of Scotland’s size, and fewer than half the number independent countries about Scotland’s size, like Denmark, get. The current holders of the seats are two Scottish National Party representatives, two Labour MEPs, one Liberal Democrat and one Conservative.
Wales in a world of referendums
Tomorrow: Gerry Hassan provides an account of the devolution contradictions of Scottish Labour.
Friday: Walter Humes asks whether Scots Tories can return from the margins of political life.
Saturday: David Torrance on the curious case of the SNP’s shift from ethnic to civic nationalism.
The Lib Dems are expected to do very badly in the election, and to lose their one seat – held by former Scottish minister George Lyon. Whilst one poll has put the second Labour member in play, it seems most likely that the five non-Lib Dem incumbents will all keep their seats. The question, then, is who will get the final one.
And this is where it gets interesting. The SNP are doing very well in the polls at the moment and hope to gain a third MEP – the controversial Tasmina Ahmed Sheikh. The Greens, also supporting a yes vote, are up in the polls too, and hope to pick up a seat for their co-leader Maggie Chapman. Finally, though UKIP have little support in Scotland, the UK media has an influence north of the border, and they’re hoping to ride in on a wave of bitterness.
And this is where the referendum and the European elections start to interrelate. It is widely expected that Nigel Farage’s far right party will do very well indeed in England, and perhaps Wales too. If they are kept out of Scotland, then many in the yes campaign feel that this will be an important moment. The country is more supportive of immigration and somewhat more pro-European than its southern neighbour, and in a referendum that is already really about the political growing apart of two countries, nothing could exemplify this more than a far-right British or, perhaps, English nationalist party storming ahead in England whilst getting nowhere in Scotland.
As one Scot put it to me “I think I’ll vote no, but when I look at UKIP, I think ‘is this the Britain they want me to vote for?’ ” If there is a UKIP surge in England, we can expect many more to be asking that question.
But of course, the European elections are about much more than UKIP, and there’s a few other interesting things worth noting here. So far, the referendum campaign has been characterised by fear-mongering from the no campaign, which culminated in Labour, Tories and Lib Dems lining up to promise they’d never let an independent Scotland share the pound. This seems to have backfired slightly in the referendum polls, but ask Scots how they intend to vote in the next election, and you see the real impact of a series of statements which have been seen as bullying. People might vote no out of fear, but that doesn’t mean the guy who shouted “boo!”.
The last poll showing European voting intention in Scotland had Labour below their 2009 result – which was one of the worst elections in the party’s history. If the poll is emulated in this election, and particularly if they lose their second seat (though that’s unlikely) it’ll be confirmation of a political earthquake in Scotland – that the Labour party, which so recently dominated Scotland, has entirely lost its grip on the country.
It’ll also be interesting to see who gains. On the one hand, the SNP third candidate is very much a part of their party establishment – backed by the leadership more than the activists. On the other, the Green candidate Maggie Chapman was the opening speaker at the Radical Independence Conference this year, and is a well kent figure across the Scottish radical left – an immigrant feminist from Zimbabwe known for emulating Latin American radicals by introducing participatory budgeting in the Leith area she represents on Edinburgh’s city council.
If it is one of these two who pick up the seat which will almost inevitably be vacated by the Liberal Democrat, then which of the two will tell us a lot about the relative support of these two wings of the pro-independence movement. And if it is a yes vote in September, the political signal that it will send to SNP negotiators about the kind of country they are trying to set up from day one could have a profound impact on the new state.
The European election is the last major political set piece event in the UK before Scotland votes on its constitutional future. How it plays out will be a key part of the story of the referendum.