Déjà Vu EU: The SNP's Attempts to Break-Up Britain over Europe

     As I was doing research for my article about the need for formal referendum rules and supermajority requirements, I came across some YouTube videos with the BBC’s coverage of the results from the United Kingdom’s referendum on continued membership in what was then the European Economic Community (also known as the Common Market) in 1975.

     It was the first national referendum in the history of Britain, and its relevance to the article I wrote was that fact that the British people delivered a crushingly decisive majority in favor of the EEC – the forerunner of the European Union – with a vote of 67% Yes for membership and 33% No. Such a majority indicated the clear and unambiguous will of the British people to be part of the Common Market, and even though a supermajority was not required, it was an example of how a popular supermajority could be achieved if people are decisively convinced on a certain proposition, whether it be a future Scottish independence referendum or the upcoming EU referendum.

     With that poll on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union on the political horizon, I decided to watch the BBC results coverage on YouTube to get a gauge on the debate and how the people voted at that time, and perhaps understand how they are connected to the new referendum that is to occur as early as June this year.

     Indeed, many of the issues back then were the same as they are today, including concerns over national sovereignty, the economy, and jobs – with the pro-market voices stressing Britain’s need to be part of the continental trading bloc in order to deliver better economic performance, and the anti-market forces raising the specter of a federal super-state from Brussels superseding British laws and weakening social gains such as worker projections in the name of the free market. Also like the upcoming referendum, this one was held following a renegotiation of Britain’s membership terms.

  for the 1975 EEC Referendum, the British Public voted by a two-thirds majority in favor of what was then the Common Market. Image Credit:  MrPenguin  via  Wikimedia Commons   cc

for the 1975 EEC Referendum, the British Public voted by a two-thirds majority in favor of what was then the Common Market. Image Credit: MrPenguin via Wikimedia Commons cc

     The program was presented by David Dimbleby and David Butler, and as the counts came in from the counties and regions across the UK, the Corporation's Robin Day was interviewing numerous featured guests, including former Prime Minister Edward Heath (who took Britain into Europe in 1973), Jo Grimmond, Enoch Powell, and many other politicians and trade union representatives. It was a mix of anti-market and pro-market, but early on, it was clear from the smaller returns – and without the counts from the large metropolitan areas such as London and Glasgow (part of the vast Strathclyde Region) – that Britain was staying in the Common Market by a 2-to-1 margin. Nevertheless, each side continued to have its say on the issues such as they were and offered commentary on the results.

     What really caught my attention was a discussion between Robin Day and pro-Market Labour MP John Mackintosh (Berwick and East Lothian) on the role of the SNP during this referendum.

     As most observers of British politics knows, the SNP was opposed to the United Kingdom’s membership in the EEC for much the same reason as wanting Scotland to secede from the UK – believing that it impinged on national sovereignty and the meaning of independence. A party pamphlet from October 1974 condemned the EEC as a “dangerous experiment in gross over-centralisation” and further claimed that “Scotland has suffered too much already from centralisation in Britain. Centralisation – Common Market style – could be a death blow to our very existence as a nation.”

     But as this working paper from the Sussex European Institute by Valeria Tarditi reveals, the SNP did have caveats in its otherwise strident position on Europe. Its 1974 party manifesto stated:

“The SNP opposed British entry, basically on political grounds of opposition to the centralist thinking inherent in the Treaty of Rome, and in the belief that, within the Common Market, not only Scotland, but the United Kingdom, would find its quality and standards of life deteriorating. The United Kingdom being in the EEC, the SNP will support moves for British withdrawal while continuing to demand Scottish representation in the organizations of the Common Market.”

     So while it slated the EEC as a whole, it also wanted to achieve agreements on parts of the Common Market it found desirable – proposing a “free trade agreement on the Norwegian model, negotiated between a sovereign Scotland and the Common Market.”

     However, when it came to the referendum of 1975, the SNP was unambiguous in its opposition to the UK’s membership of the EEC, and this was the first test of their political influence since coming off of their most successful general election performance up to that point – having won 30% of the vote and eleven of Scotland’s 71 seats in the House of Commons during the October 1974 election.

     So as the results trickled in, the BBC had John Mackintosh on for an interview, during which the following exchange occurred starting at 3:52 (although the overall conversation started at 2:07) during part five of the broadcast videos:

     Robin Day:

“Do you think the figures [in Scotland] so far give any true indication of the real strength of the Scottish National Party – because people were saying that Scottish nationalism would make a No vote in Scotland and lead to the break-up of the UK, weren’t they?”

     John Mackintosh MP (Labour – Berwick and East Lothian):

“Yes, but I don’t think so. I think that the Scottish National Party miscalculated very badly in thinking that people would do tactical voting. Their last appeal was [to] make a tactical No, because quite a lot of the Scottish National Party – I think about 25% – were in fact, in favor of Europe, and I think this was a miscalculation because on a big issue like this, people are concerned about the issue itself, and not using it to gain some other means, and I think they miscalculated…it would have been far better for the SNP to admit that like every other party, they were divided and let their [pro-market members] go pro and their [anti-market members] the other way.”

     So the SNP were seeking to use the EEC referendum as a means to achieve the break-up of the United Kingdom. For them according to Tarditi, the poll was more about proving the “illegitimacy of the British government and its policies in Scotland”, and they hoped “that the opinions expressed by the Scottish people would be totally different from the rest of the UK and, above all, that in Scotland there would be a clear majority that opposed EC membership.” By Mackintosh’s account, they promoted tactical voting in order to achieve this result as to further their top-line agenda.

     As it turned out, of those areas that elected an SNP MP in October 1974, only the Western Isles voted No and the party could not convert its electoral strength into a result against the EEC. During part one of these results videos, there was a particular focus on the old Central Scotland Region (containing the former administrative counties of Stirlingshire, Clackmannanshire, and parts of West Lothian and Perthshire) which – according to one of the commentators – had elected three anti-market MP’s (one SNP and two Labour) but voted 60% in favor of EEC membership. That the Nationalists in particular had some strength in this area made the result particularly surprising, and indicated that the voters had rejected the advice of their elected representatives in Parliament. It was especially surprising that it had a slightly higher Yes majority than John Mackintosh’s Lothian Region, where Conservative-dominated Edinburgh was thought to help put it higher in the Yes column than Central Scotland.

     In total, Scotland voted 58.4% to 41.6% in favor of Britain’s EU membership. It was a nearly two-to-one majority, with the Western Isles and Shetland being the only counting areas in the whole UK to vote No, and the SNP failed in their hopes of driving a wedge against the rest of the UK to peddle their grievances and agitate for separation.

     However, if any of this sounds familiar, it is. Today’s SNP is once again attempting to use the European issue to as a means to break-up Britain, and they are being quite vocal about it.

     The main difference today is that the SNP has become – at least on the surface – a party strongly in favor of the modern-day EU. During the 1980’s, they adopted the “Independence in Europe” slogan and saw Scottish membership of the EU as a desirable way to get around the argument that with independence, Scotland would be cast out alone. Even without independence, the party has gone out of its way to show how Scotland benefits from the UK being a member (just as other parts of the country do as well), and throughout the last independence campaign, it tried to convince voters that separating from the UK would not mean that Scotland would be out of the EU. On the contrary, it would likely become a member in its own right automatically, and if that was not the case, it would surely become a member in short order with its share of the UK’s opt-outs, such as the Thatcher rebate and not having to adopt the euro.

     With overwhelming evidence against them on this point, the voters rejected the SNP’s claims and elected to stay part of the UK, but since then, the Nationalists have been claiming that it is the upcoming EU referendum that represents the greatest threat to Scotland’s participation in the EU. As such, they have talked up the possibility of another independence referendum if Scotland “gets dragged out of the EU against its will”. Should this happen, they and many people in the media believe they stand a chance of winning that referendum because (assuming the polls are correct) Scots favor the EU much more than their fellow British citizens other parts of the UK – England in particular – and will vote accordingly whenever the referendum comes.

     Indeed, as in 1975, there are some elements within the party what would like to see tactical voting used so as to ensure a result in which the majority of Scots vote to retain EU membership and the UK as a whole votes differently to withdraw from the EU. Even among those SNP voters who do not want EU membership, some may vote against their natural desires in a tactical maneuver they believe will undermine the UK government’s legitimacy in Scotland and drive independence forward.

     This is somewhat questionable and it is likely that the leadership of the party does not hold these views on tactical voting, especially given the party’s political strength today which vastly outstrips the success they had in the 1970’s. If for some unforeseen reason however, the vote gets tight in Scotland and perhaps even a majority of Scots vote to terminate the UK's membership, it may well be the SNP that ends up with egg on its face if the rest of the UK votes to stay in and delivers on the party position of the SNP - effectively bailing it out.

     Nevertheless, their saber-rattling over the EU issue and potentially using it as an excuse to call another referendum shows how they – despite promising the 2014 referendum would be “once in a generation” – are always trying to stoke up division and drive wedges, as well as find grievances to peddle and ways to keep the independence issue alive with the aim of hi-jacking other issues to get what they want (and Tarditi writes that to some extent, the SNP forms its position on Europe to simply to put itself at odds with the UK government). On the surface, they may campaign for the UK to stay in, but there may well be a part of them that relishes in the prospect of the overall UK voting to leave and Scotland voting to stay in.

     Hopefully, as the late John Mackintosh said in 1975 when the SNP tried this trick, most people – not just in Scotland, but throughout Britain – will focus on the main issue of EU membership. They need to think about the vote and the implications for themselves, their families, and the country in which they live – the United Kingdom – and go forward together with the decision made together.