David Jamieson explores a Scottish Euroscepticism. This article was first published in our print magazine, which comes free with The National on the first weekend of each month.
Nicola Sturgeon’s revision of the independence referendum timetable this week (Tuesday 27 June) could either prove a route or a healthy tactical retreat and recalibration of the entire independence movement.
The wide-ranging statement touched on many concerns that pro-independence critics of the SNP have long espoused. Independence itself rather than dry calculations about dates and mechanisms would return to the fore, she promised. The SNP will reach out to a broader independence movement in the bid to make this case. Perhaps most importantly, the SNP’s programme for government would be re-infused with vision and “radical” purpose.
Whether any or all these pledges are made good upon will be seen in time. But one central issue was not discussed. Since the UK voted to leave the EU and Scotland voted to remain in June 2016, Sturgeon has re-orientated the independence cause on the Brexit question. The assumption that this was the natural stance of the independence movement has been unfaltering. The political impact far-reaching. The independence movement must, if it is to choose tactical retreat and a re-affirmation of its winning formula over collapse, take seriously the nature of the EU and the opposition to it by so many of its adherents.
A year of rage against the EU
The European Union is a grossly misunderstood institution.
That has been the cry of centrist governments across the European continent in the shadow of rising populist and nationalist movements in recent years and months. Truly, many anti-EU forces do misunderstand the organisation. For free market Brexiteers and the grandchildren of Vichy (and these are the predominant Eurosceptic tendencies on the right across Europe) the EU is, respectively, a business smothering bureaucracy or a foreign and miscegenating conspiracy.
For the former and larger category, the EU is to blame for the continued decline of many of Europe’s former imperial states. From the UK to France, Spain to Italy, a movement led by a small faction of the wealthy elite believes the EU to be the source of intractable economic problems; from low productivity and growth through national debt and even corruption. Behind them, this faction has marshalled a substantial element of small business and the wider middle classes as well as parts of the working class, often the poorest and most disaffected.
All these groups will be roused with a shock when it is found that the removal of EU bureaucracy, and whatever new ‘control’ can be established over European immigration, does nothing to arrest these chronic problems, nor the structural unemployment, disintegrating welfare states and low wage economies driving anger among working class Eurosceptics.
A Scottish Euroscepticism?
But here in Scotland, as in other parts of Europe, another kind of EU confusion abounds.
In January this year, at the superbly organised and rejuvenating Scottish Independence Convention (SIC) in Glasgow, hundreds of independence activists gathered to begin laying the intellectual and organisational groundwork in expectation of a second referendum, made “highly likely” according to First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, by Brexit.
The meeting carried a mood of robust self-criticism. Weaknesses of the Yes campaign in 2014 and before were frankly discussed, as were the difficulties faced by a second campaign, the defeat of which would surely put independence to bed for a generation. Yet, as would be the case with Sturgeon’s announcement six months hence, the EU issue was not broached. Its absence was felt in the room, which overwhelmingly supported Scotland’s membership of the EU.
Thirty eight per cent of 2014 Yes voters voted leave in 2016.
If this has been misunderstood by figures in the SNP party machine, which has long tied the concept of Scottish independence with the country’s membership of a wider union of European nations, it should not be lost on the independence movement.
The Yes campaign was the quintessential left ‘populist’ movement, with a broad base in the working and lower middle class but also, in its final weeks and by the design of groups like the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC), drawing in some of the poorest layers of the working class.
It is not difficult to understand, therefore, why such a large proportion of Yes voters, angry, anti-establishment and suffering declining living standards, backed leaving the EU. In the perverse mythology of the rightwing Eurosceptics, the EU is an offence to economic seriousness, national sovereignty and in some cases even racial purity. In the centre-left version of that mythology, the EU is a shield held up against the worst excesses of the market and an expression of internationalism and cross-border solidarity. Even when the EU fails to achieve these ideals in practice, this remains its essential nature.
The EU in the real world
But the world, of course, is a grimmer and plainer place than this. The EU developed in the post-war world with the rebuilding of Europe from the ashes of the Second World War and from underneath US protection in the global Cold War. It is an economic instrument, initially established as an alliance of the two nation-states at the heart of the century’s wars – Germany and France.
They complemented each other, France as an agrarian powerhouse and West Germany as an industrial one (in part owing to its important position in the Cold War).
More recent decades have seen a re-unified Germany advance at the expense of France, and the project has moved in the direction of a project for economic harmonisation in the interests of Germany.
European institutions, operating beyond any real democratic control, bludgeon weaker nation states into submission to this order.
The Cold Warrior status of the EU meant Western Europe was military united against the Eastern Bloc (and hence at peace with itself), but since the collapse of the USSR the EU, in tandem with partners like Nato and the US, has made deeper and sometimes bloody incursions into the Russian sphere of influence.
One Yes activist, speaking from the floor of the SIC conference in January, said that Yes-leave voters could be “won back” because they could be convinced that “immigrants aren’t to blame”.
One could complain that not all leave voters are anti-immigration, or over the presumption of correctness on what is a genuinely complex issue, and one on which ignorant attitudes are lamentably common on left and right.
But by far the most dangerous and galling part of this sentiment is “won back”.
The Yes-leave Constituency
The idea that voters and even activists already committed to independence require “won back” is wrong headed. But the idea that people can or should be persuaded to independence through the vector of support for the EU is positively dangerous.
Needless to say, one cause is not the other. Striving to win a constituency of only those flexible enough to bend around both issues is a recipe for losing votes, and confusing and demoralising even fanatical supporters.
Tensions on this issue already feature in the leadership of the SNP itself. Sturgeon seems enamoured of the EU ideal, whereas former leader Alex Salmond has made clear time and again that Brexit is only the occasion, and not the reason for a second independence referendum. This framing was re-rehabilitated by Sturgeon in her parliamentary confessional.
So how is the Yes-Eurosceptic constituency ‘won’ for a second vote? First of all, who are they?
Some of them are voters with a specific grievance with the EU, such as those in fishing communities.
But very often leave voters were the very same working class who surged the Yes vote in the final weeks of the independence campaign.
SNP MSP for Glasgow Shettleston John Mason described to the Evening Times an “affluence versus deprivation” divide in the vote breakdown, comparing wards like the impoverished Blairtummock to the affluent Mount Vernon, he said: “The main thing I picked up on was poorer areas voting more to leave”.
Glasgow’s poorest communities registered higher than average leave votes – 44 per cent in Glasgow East for example, compared with Glasgow North, which voted 78 per cent remain.
SNP voters were more likely to vote leave than any other major Scottish party in 2016, including the Scottish Conservatives. As noted before, 38 per cent of Yes voters voted leave, the same as the national average. Correlations between Yes and remain are consequently hard to match on a geographical basis (and the independence movement was starkly polarised by area) with Yes voting bastions like Dundee voting below the national remain average, and pro-Union strongholds like Edinburgh voting by a massive 74 per cent to remain.
Populists for Yes
The theory of electoral triangulation is dead. It couldn’t survive President Trump or Jeremy Corbyn’s General Election victory on all but points. Today we know that bases can be secured and new recruits attracted by appealing vociferously to a core message.
Attempts to reach out to pro-EU elements of the middle class by the SNP can yield few votes even on a good day. They are one small quadrant of society, and to the extent that they voted No in 2014, they are also ‘small c’ conservatives, unwilling to rock the boat – and independence will always be a rocky boat.
Furthermore, it is a phenomenon little observed but entirely real nonetheless, the remain ‘cause’ is rapidly dying.
This was evident in both the local elections and general elections, when the Liberal Democrats, who have styled themselves as the remain party, failed to make any kind of breakthrough.
The SNP are no exception. There are surely, a wide array of reasons why the SNP has retreated in electoral terms, including the re-consolidation of the pro-Union vote and the uninspiring nature of recent Scottish Government policy. But in any case, staunch Europhileism has clearly not benefited the party.
Polls in 2017 have consistently shown that 2016 remain voters are split down the middle on whether Brexit should be accepted or in some way disregarded. The pro-EU street movement that emerged briefly after the June 23 vote, principally in London and Edinburgh, quickly dissipated.
The human material for victory in a second referendum resides precisely where it did before, among the sceptical, populist and anti-establishment working class – many of whom voted leave.
The most important way in which the populist base is secured is by driving the campaign for independence back into the working class base. Striking out as a real alternative to the neo-liberal centre is benefiting political forces around the world. The growing instability of the world order, economic, social and political, will only make that a more acute reality.
The EU is a touchstone for the international populist fury. It embodies the elitism, neo-liberal economics and anti-democratic mood of the wealthy and powerful that is being shrugged-off by millions of people after decades of acceptance.
Real political consequences flow from the SNP’s unwelcome alignment with the EU.
Having been an insurgency against the British state in 2014, independence became a buttress for another failing pillar of the world order.
Leftwing economics, whisperings of which had made the independence movement so infectious in 2014, had to be sidelined for the EU’s shrivelled orthodoxy.
In moving away from the centre and back towards the radical fringe that served independence and Corbyn so well, we can reconcile leave and remain voting Yes voters, and have the real debate we require about Scotland’s place out of a crisis ridden UK and in the world, untroubled by the EU’s anti-social economic rules.
Above all else in this regard, we have to remember that independence was never a purely national but also internationalist movement, and draw on the resources and criticisms of supporters in Europe and beyond. We must be with the people of the continent, not its callous rulers.
In the coming period of realignment for the independence movement, support for the EU must be abandoned.