Voting As One on Europe

Britain's Union Flag and the EU Flag. Image Credit:  Dave Kellam  via  Flickr   CC

Britain's Union Flag and the EU Flag. Image Credit: Dave Kellam via Flickr CC

     The campaign on Britain’s membership of the European Union well and truly got underway last week as Prime Minister David Cameron announced the date of the referendum to be June 23rd.

     With modified membership terms, the British people will have their first say on Europe since overwhelmingly voting in favor of joining the EU’s predecessor, the European Economic Community (EEC, or the Common Market) 41 year ago, and the campaign promises to be a passionate and contentious battle between those who believe the UK’s future is in the 28-member bloc and those who believe that it will be better off outside of it.

     As it currently stands, most opinion polls show that the British public are almost evenly divided on the issue, and there still substantial numbers of people who remain on the fence. From now until the day of the vote itself, there will be robust arguments and counter-arguments, claims and counter-claims for and against EU membership. Only then will those on the fence have to make a decision based on what’s best for themselves, their families, and their country – and everyone will render their collective verdict on whether to keep the membership or terminate it.

     In an ideal world, there ought to be a supermajority requirement, so that in order for a vote in favor of changing the status quo (terminating membership, that is) to be valid, there would have to be substantially more than 50% plus one in favor of it, so as to ensure that when the decision is made, the vast majority of the population will be behind it.

     Alas, this is not going to happen unfortunately, and so a simple majority will suffice. However, it should be more realistic to believe that whichever way the vote goes in total, the result ought to be respected, and the people of the UK should accordingly move forward as one.

     However, this basic notion of democracy has been questioned by – you guessed it – the SNP. Indeed, it is no secret that the Nationalists have been banging on about calling another independence referendum should the UK as a whole vote to terminate its EU membership but the majority of Scots vote the other way.

     To be sure, the most opinion polls have showed that at the very least, Scots are more likely to vote in favor of the EU than their fellow Britons in other parts of the UK – England in particular, and the strength of the English “Leave” vote may well be enough to take Britain out of the EU without a majority of Scots backing it. This, claim the Nationalists and their supporters, will amount to Scotland being “dragged out of the EU against its will” and thus force the independence issue back to the surface – not that it really went away even after the decisive self-determination of Scots to keep the UK together – by giving Nicola Sturgeon the “material change” or “trigger” she has cited as the grounds for calling another referendum. Such an outcome, the theory goes, will result in Scotland voting for independence in order to stay in (or re-enter) the EU because the overall UK vote on the EU failed to go the way the majority of Scots wanted.

     This attempt to effectively achieve the break-up of the UK by taking advantage of potential voting differences on Europe is not new, for the SNP tried this during the 1975 referendum when it was against the Common Market and hoped that Scotland would vote “No” to the EEC while the overall UK voted “Yes”. According to a working paper from the Sussex European Institute by Valeria Tarditi, the SNP viewed that referendum as a way to prove 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.”

     As it was, the SNP hopes for this were shattered as Scots voted with their fellow Brits in favor of the Common Market – perhaps indicating that they viewed the EEC issue on its own merits, rather than seeking to use it for other means, as was noted by Labour MP John Mackintosh on the BBC as the results of that referendum were coming in.

     Now the modern-day SNP is pro-EU, but the rhetoric with regard to how the rest of the UK feels about it has not changed, and with the date for the referendum set, they have been ratcheting up their saber-rattling by repeatedly talking up the possibility of another independence referendum at virtually every chance they get. Nicola Sturgeon has said that the UK leaving the EU without a majority of Scots will “almost certainly” trigger a second referendum and her predecessor Alex Salmond said that the pressure for it would be “irresistible.”

     Along the way, the Nationalists have whined about the chosen referendum date – given that it takes place a month-and-a-half after the Scottish parliamentary elections, and therefore causes the two campaigns to overlap. Such overlapping, they have claimed, is just another “Westminster insult” toward the Scottish people. However, it’s more likely an insult to the Scottish people (along with the Welsh, Northern Irish, and the English – who hold assembly, local council, mayoral, and police commission elections on the same day as the Holyrood election) to say that they cannot be trusted to differentiate the two campaigns, just as they were able to do five years ago when they gave the SNP a majority in Holyrood while also voting in the UK-wide AV referendum.

     In the end, as Alan Cochrane noted in the Telegraph, “David Cameron was always going to hold the vote when he thought he’d the best chance of winning”, just as Alex Salmond – with Sturgeon supporting him – chose September 18, 2014 as the optimal date for holding the Scottish referendum.

     With regard to the upcoming EU referendum, this griping about the date, the potential outcome, and the fact the referendum is even being held is partly an exercise in SNP party management, because as also noted by Cochrane, the Nationalist First Minister of Scotland is on the same side of the EU debate as the Tory Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, and having successfully bludgeoned the Labour Party over “standing shoulder-to-shoulder” with the Tories in common cause to save the Union and swelling the ranks of her party in the process, Sturgeon feels the need to put clear water between herself and David Cameron. To keep the more zealous of her party onside therefore, she picks fights with Cameron and the UK Government, and always reminds everyone that “Brexit” will likely result in agitations for “indyref2”.

     In this vein, the SNP and those minded towards them have for years been trying to write off the EU question as the obsessions of Westminster, the Tories, UKIP, and the English. Not only is this cheek given their own constitutional obsessions, but it is a false premise given that around 60% of Scots are themselves “Euroskeptic” – slightly lower than the overall UK proportion – according most recent British Social Attitudes Survey. Nevertheless, it suits them to hype up the differences between England and Scotland, so as to further their independence agenda and claim that Scotland will be dragged out of the EU via English votes.

     However, as former Labour MP Tom Harris bluntly wrote in his own column in the Telegraph, the reality regarding the EU debate and referendum is this: “it’s not all about you, Scotland.” Indeed, having watched as a “significant minority of Scots took to the airwaves and the doorsteps to explain their desire for a divorce from them” during the two year long independence referendum campaign, their “English, Welsh and Northern Irish compatriots have displayed a patience above and beyond what might be required of fellow citizens.” Now that the UK is having a referendum on EU membership, it should be plainly obvious that this about the United Kingdom as a whole and not about any one part in isolation of the others.

     Above all, it must be remembered that the question on the referendum ballot will be:

Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?

     It will not say “Should Scotland remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?”, nor will it say “Should England remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?”, and still further, it will not say “Should Wales remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?” or “Should Northern Ireland remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?”

     Why is that? Because, in the most respectful of terms, none of them have EU membership; the United Kingdom does, and it should be abundantly clear that whatever the outcome of the EU referendum vote in any one part of the United Kingdom – however defined – it is the overall vote throughout the United Kingdom that matters.

     This means that an overall UK result in which English “Leave” votes are strong enough to take the UK out without a majority of the other Home Nations is perfectly legitimate, and the same goes for a scenario in which the “Remain” votes of the other parts of the UK are enough to keep the UK in without a majority of the English. Both results are legitimate as they will represent the majority will of the British people in their totality, and should not cause resentment on the part of anybody so long as the vote is conducted fairly and held to the highest electoral standards.

     Indeed, there is the possibility that the English vote will be split roughly evenly – meaning that the results among the rest of the UK in Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales may be decisive in tilting the overall result one way or the other.

     This is why David Cameron – as a British citizen and Prime Minister of the United Kingdom – will be campaigning throughout the UK, including Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, to press his case for keeping the UK’s EU membership. This is why every vote in the referendum will count equally wherever it is cast throughout the United Kingdom, and this highlights the need for every eligible citizen to be registered for voting and then actually vote on the day that really matters. It also shows the importance of retaining the BBC's UK-wide News at Six in Scotland, for it is important for people to know what's going on in the UK overall and get a UK-wide perspective on news which effects everyone in the UK - including Scotland, and this has been made clear by focus groups. With regard to the EU referendum, this is particularly important, because Scots will be voting alongside people who are not foreigners, but their fellow Brits and only the overall result matters.

     Even if “Brexit” happens without a majority of Scots, it is not immediately clear that Sturgeon will make any quick moves to call for a referendum, or even if she will, for as explained by Martin Kettle in the Guardian and Joyce McMillan in the Scotsman, Brexit presents a myriad of issues for the SNP and makes independence far from certain. Indeed, if the cards are played wrong, the hopes among some in the SNP for a “Scotland stay/UK leave” vote in June may well backfire. There is certainly no guarantee that Sturgeon can achieve victory on a second referendum even in the aforementioned circumstances, and if she were to lose, it would almost certainly put off the independence issue for decades, if not terminally. So it is in Sturgeon’s own interest to vigorously and genuinely campaign – like Cameron – for a Remain vote throughout the UK, regardless of what some in her own party may be thinking.

     Hopefully, as John Mackintosh said in 1975, most people 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 as one.

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.