The European elections are usually marked by public apathy and low turnout. Not this time. The Scottish Government is looking to Europe to change the fortunes of the independence campaign in 2014.
After a year in which the Yes campaign made little progress, despite the launch of the SNP’s ‘all-questions-answered’ White Paper on independence, they certainly need a game-changer. There are signs Scottish voters are becoming irritated by the endless debate about constitutional issues with little relevance to their daily lives. But could Europe ignite renewed interest in self-government?
The Scottish Nationalists expect the Euro elections in May to showcase a new xenophobic brand of English nationalism, in the grinning guise of Ukip’s Nigel Farage. The preceding months are likely to be dominated by continuing press coverage of Romanian ‘benefit tourists’. As the campaign intensifies in the spring, David Cameron will be under pressure from the increasingly vociferous and europhobic back bench to call for a No in the in/out referendum on British membership of the EU scheduled for 2017.
The Coalition Government’s line has been that it will first renegotiate the terms of British membership, though the scope for that seems pretty limited since Britain already has substantial opt-outs from the European Monetary System, the Shengen zone and the banking union. Tories like Boris Johnson, the London mayor, are demanding nothing short of ‘liberation’ from Brussels bureaucracy.
The SNP hope all this Europe-bashing will help convince Scots that Westminster politics is taking a nasty turn and that the old UK status quo is no longer an option. Forget the warnings about an independent Scotland being required to renegotiate membership of the EU. Scotland is arguably more likely to be forced out of Europe by remaining in the UK than leaving it. Either way, the days when Britain was – in John Major’s words – “at the heart of Europe”, are over.
But will the Scots be that concerned? The SNP are confident that they are more internationalist than English voters – a proposition that has yet to be tested properly. There is no significant party of the right in Scotland, which means anti-European voices tend to get drowned out – much as Ukip has been over the past couple of years. Literally, in the case of Nigel Farage’s disastrous visit to Edinburgh when he was forced to seek refuge in a pub from protesters.
It will not be possible to drown out the 2014 European election campaign, which will be projected loud and clear by the London-based media – the BBC and the UK press – ensuring that Ukip and the Tories get maximum exposure in Scotland as well as in England. It will be a significant test of both Europe’s support in Scotland – and of the SNP’s support in Scotland.
The SNP hope to improve on their performance in the 2009 European elections, when they won two seats and increased their vote. However, Alex Salmond faces a dilemma here. If the Nationalists try to turn the European elections into a proxy campaign for the independence referendum, the Scottish voters might turn on them. The signs are clear that Scots have a limited appetite for independence propaganda. Paradoxically, to do well in Europe, the SNP might be advised to tone down the independence rhetoric until after May.
Labour’s Johann Lamont may try to turn the European election campaign into a referendum on the Tory-led Coalition in the UK, and their ‘little helpers’ in Scotland, the SNP. Labour believe Scots are much more concerned with domestic issues like class sizes, NHS waiting lists and the cost of living crisis than they are about independence – which is probably true. They see last week’s poll indicating that most Scots might accept an increase in council tax if it led to improved services as marking a sea change in Scottish politics. A couple of recent polls havde also suggested Labour are finally closing the gap with the soaraway SNP in voting intentions for Holyrood.
Mind you, Alex Salmond doesn’t seem particularly concerned. The SNP say they would relish a London-centred European campaign led by Ed Miliband, who the SNP believe has little voter recognition in Scotland. And by the Scottish leader, Johann Lamont, who has even less: a Herald poll in December suggested 41 per cent of Scots don’t know who she is.
So, while there will be much talk of a Labour revival in Scotland, as support for independence languishes Labour has a way to go before it can be a confident contender in 2016, even if the referendum delivers the expected No vote. Its best chance to regain the initiative might be to come up with a clear and convincing policy for devolution max – or at least ‘devolution more’ – before the referendum. Labour need to prove to Scottish voters that they have both ideas and independence from London Labour.
Of course, no-one is forecasting certain defeat for the Yes Scotland campaign in 2014, even though the opinion polls seem unanimously in the negative. Professor John Curtice, the polling oracle, believes time is running out and that if the polls haven’t moved significantly in the next couple of months, there is little chance of victory. Mind you, he said something similar before the 2011 Scottish parliamentary elections – as did we all – and we saw what happened.
The SNP remain remarkably bullish. They say the voters haven’t begun to think seriously about the issues involved. The revelation in Cabinet papers released under the 30-year rule that Margaret Thatcher’s government had tried to push through £500 million in “secret” cuts to the Scottish budget in 1984 is, they say, a warning of what will happen in 2014 if Scots vote No. The Barnett Formula will be cut by £4 billion.
The SNP believe history is on their side and that small nations are the future in Europe. The 30 small countries in Europe, average population of five million, comprise half the landmass of the EU and are becoming increasingly influential in European politics. Countries like Denmark, Hungary, Finland and Slovakia will have a decisive role in shaping the new Europe that emerges after May 2014.
It is the big countries, like Spain, France and Italy, that are still suffering from the sovereign debt crisis. Little Latvia, with a population of 2.7 million, is now the fastest-growing economy in the Eurozone and has just joined the Euro currency union in a wave of business confidence. If Latvia can have a seat at the top table of Europe, say the SNP, why not Scotland?
And attention will also be focused on the aspiring countries of Europe in 2014. The Spanish government is refusing to recognise the right of the Catalan region to hold its own referendum on independence. But Barcelona is going ahead regardless and has scheduled a ballot for November. SNP supporters hope this too will concentrate Scottish minds in referendum year and give inspiration to Scots.
However, the Better Together campaign has been highly successful in boxing the Nationalists into a narrow range of negative issues, like the pound, pensions and immigration controls. It has prevented the Yes campaign from painting an attractive vision of Scotland’s possible future as an independent country in Europe. The Unionists see no reason for abandoning a policy that works. Project Fear is alive and well in 2014.
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