“We should have a say, too.”
I was having dinner at a Chinese restaurant (literal, rather than in Scotland) with two colleagues in May last year. They were both originally from the north of England, now at Oxford University, one freshly retired, the other a postdoc. One of them was very clearly an old-style Conservative, from the generation for whom the Labour Party being seen as capable of fiscally competent government was as ludicrous as the idea of Scotland becoming independent (and to be treated with as much light, patronising derision). In contrast to that, Johnny was a Labour supporter, and his opposition was knee-jerk and unthinking, paradoxically espousing ‘internationalism’ as though it were limited by national boundaries (which many others besides myself have dealt with elsewhere). That can sometimes be symptomatic of underlying (and probably unrecognised) British Nationalism.
I guess that it had all really started when he had tried to urge me that the only way to get rid of the Tories in Westminster was to vote Labour. ‘Really?’, I smiled: ‘where I come from, we call them Red Tories’. I admit that I may have then riled him when, after moving on to a doomed attempt to convince me that there was ‘no distinct political identity’ in Scotland (I cited polls on retaining the monarchy: Game Over), he expressed how appalled he was that the Referendum was even taking place.
‘And I think it’s so wrong that we don’t have a say in that decision’. I guess that my mistake was to be overwhelmed at the audacity of such a suggestion, and the blindness of arguing such a position without acknowledging its insincerity: given the vastly disproportionate numbers involved (and that any likely weighting system would have favoured the Westminster preference), their desire to ‘have a say’ equated to MAKING the decision themselves.
Johnny was hardly unique in his perspective, either. Five days before the Referendum, the Herald published a survey showing 70% of English voters opposed independence, and 56% of them felt that they should have a had a vote too. Let’s just leave aside the argument that the government dominantly run by those elected by those same English voters was having something more than ‘a say’ in matters, as it was actively throwing tens of millions into funding the campaign to obstruct independence…the decision to leave a union because it is not working having to be unanimous, is tantamount to saying ‘it does not matter if it does not work for you – it has to no longer be working for us, too, before it is over’.
The standard baseline metaphor used throughout the Referendum, was that of a relationship breaking down – if someone does not believe a relationship is working anymore, and wants out, how can you morally justify a position of wishing to overrule them? That is not a partnership. When it is between nations, that is called something very different.
But earlier this week, a better – and perhaps more obvious – comparison hoved clearly into view.
On Wednesday, Nicola Sturgeon announced the intention to table an amendment to any EU In/Out Referendum bill, to give any separate one of the UK’s ‘family of nations’ an opt-out, so that the vote in England would not overrule differing attitudes to EU membership in Wales, Northern Ireland or Scotland. Unsurprisingly, it was not a viewpoint that either David Cameron or Bill Cash supported – some saying that it was even hypocritical, given that those elsewhere in the UK were not allowed a say in Scotland’s independence referendum.
But – wait – back up there. Have they not missed the point? Surely the comparable situation in that proposal, where an individual nation is trying to leave a union that was not working, but having to be voted on by all members of that union…would mean that all EU member states would get to decide whether the UK could leave in an EU In/Out vote?
I felt a fool for not having deployed that argument – not only in the restaurant in May last year, but since then when campaigning. It seems so obvious now (and I am sure that others were using it), but I just failed to pick up on it. It took Nicola to make that point, for it to register with me.
And I am pretty sure that it will not just be me that gets it, as it sets up the ‘Referendum Rerun’ nicely. There are three pieces that need to fall into place: a Conservative (with or without UKIP) government in May 2015, a majority for ‘Yes’ political parties at Holyrood in 2016, then an EU vote that splits with England saying ‘Out’ while Scotland says ‘In’ (and let us note the YouGov poll this week, that indicated that 57% of people in Scotland would vote to stay in the EU if a referendum were held, compared with 37% of people across the UK, 28% in Scotland wanting to leave compared with 47% across the UK).
That leads to the emergency consultative independence referendum, where the reprise is framed within the context of ‘the only way that we stay in Europe’ – ‘Better Together in Europe’, anyone? – with suddenly large businesses and banks perhaps less interested in the departure option. Of course, we can expect them to be campaigning for an European ‘In’ vote, and, as with Scotland’s independence referendum, their money and voice will make a significant impact. Possibly even a decisive one.
One fly in the ointment, of course, is if Farage gets his July referendum next year, as that means a Scottish ‘Yes’ Government will not have had the opportunity to be reelected (never mind BE reelected) with a renewed mandate for a referendum. However, if a majority of MPs from Scotland are SNP, that could be taken as a proxy for that.
All other things being equal (and certainly the polling evidence strongly supports SNP dominance for both Westminster and Holyrood, even if they do not get an outright majority there again), that leaves it up to how xenophobic England is becoming, as to whether all three of these pieces fall into place. Clacton and Heywood/Middleton are fairly strong indicators that they probably are, but it remains to be seen whether the Rochester by-election on 20th November follows the same pattern of huge advances for UKIP.
While Westminster may well be congratulating itself on winning the Scottish Referendum war, they may be about to lose the peace.
“The results of academic research suggest that an in/out referendum on EU membership would generate a different result on either side of the border” (The Times, 23/10/2014)