Europe’s Implosion Could Save the UK

Alex Salmond’s slogan, “Independence in Europe”, is no longer appealing. Unionists have a chance to reset the referendum debate

EU Features Scotland
But are the Scots on his side? Alex Salmond needs to rethink his attitude towards Europe

Watching the disintegration of the European project begin, torn between feelings of jubilant eurosceptic vindication and horrified foreboding about the potential economic impact of the coming explosion, I see a bright spot. The European Union’s crisis is a major opportunity for those of us who want to hold together the United Kingdom.

Since the Scottish National Party’s leader Alex Salmond won an overall majority in the devolved parliamentary elections in May it has looked as though the Union is a hopeless cause. He has all but wiped out his opponents, and most of those that remain seem incapable of marshalling arguments against separation. But Salmond — generally regarded by the English media as an entertaining Caledonian equivalent of Boris Johnson, an unstoppable populist figure seemingly above normal politics — has a problem. The European project is doomed. It is little understood in England that since the late 1980s modern Scottish nationalism has been built on the intellectual bedrock of something called “Independence in Europe”, a slogan designed to indicate to voters north of the border that Scotland could safely leave the UK and simply join the rising EU. Salmond used to deploy the term “Independence in Europe” incessantly, although he uses it a lot less since the eurozone started its death spiral.

The First Minister, an economist by training, has recently acknowledged that, post independence, he would not try to take Scotland into the single currency. After all, only a total maniac would now attempt to enter the “burning building with no exits”, as William Hague famously described the euro a decade ago. Salmond’s new position is that Scotland would leave the UK but keep the pound rather than launching a new currency. He doesn’t rule out entry to the euro at some distant future date, though it is questionable whether the euro in its current form will even exist by then. Quite how he squares this position with the requirement of new entrants to the EU — and Scotland would have to apply for accession status — to sign up for monetary union is not explained. 

Before the European project stalled it was clear what Salmond was asking Scots to vote for in the independence referendum he plans to hold in the next few years. Scots would leave one union, the UK, and sign up to a bigger union, the EU. But now what exactly are they being asked to join? An independent Edinburgh-based government would try to join the EU, but not the euro, which means leaving Britain but asking the English for shelter under the umbrella of sterling. The nationalist offer sounds a good deal less appealing than it was.

There is — if the abject Unionist parties do not make their usual mistake of misjudging Salmond — a chance in all of this to reframe the discussion. Scots may be persuaded that the relative security of the UK as it stands, for all its difficulties, is a far better bet than a gamble on the uncertainty of an EU-orientated future. Running against this is the idea that the Scots are intrinsically more pro-European than their supposedly inward-looking southern cousins. This is nonsense but has long been one of the principal conceits of Scottish nationalists and home-rulers. In the self-regarding world of devolved Edinburgh politics, with its smug presumptions of moral superiority over the English, this is regarded as a given.

There is actually little evidence to suggest Scots are more pro-European than the English, or are “better Europeans” to use a loaded phrase. As Professor James Mitchell, the doyen of political scientists in Scotland has noted, there was a period towards the end of the 1980s when Scots were marginally more in favour of European integration. But that was largely because Margaret Thatcher was opposed to it and on that basis some Scots took the view that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”. It didn’t go much deeper than that.

Of course, many Scots (to my horror, as a British Scot) now delight in supporting Germany or any other European nation playing against England in sporting contests. It may be an important indicator of national feeling and an expression of petty resentments, but it is certainly not evidence of good Europeanism. Such petty anti-Englishness is merely proof that the rise of narrow nationalism has coarsened manners and damaged neighbourly relations. 

A dedicated nationalist, donning tartan-tinted specs, might point to the colourful historical relationship between Scotland and France, the Auld Alliance (more celebrated in Edinburgh than in Paris, in my experience), as evidence that pre-Union Scotland was more continental in its outlook. Now a nation “liberated” from English control is in the process of rediscovering strong direct ties with other countries in some vague way via Brussels. Do the French or others see it that way? Er… non.

Before the Union the English certainly regarded Scotland’s  links to the continental powers as a threat. The various Jacobite rebellions after 1707 showed that the Hanoverians — in lowland Protestant Scotland as much as England — were right to fear a Stuart invasion with French Catholic support. But after the 1745 uprising, Enlightenment Scotland immersed itself for two centuries in the Union and the business of empire, profiting enormously and enjoying political, financial, industrial, military and cultural clout within Britain wholly disproportionate to the size of its population. England, I maintain, benefited greatly from this arrangement too.

Then after the Second World War the bonds, from the Scottish end, began to fray. There was the winding down of the British empire, Thatcherism, industrial decline and the exploration of Scottish identity by artists and historians. All played their part, of course, as did the corrosive creeping power of municipal socialism north of the border. Its assumptions gradually so polluted Scottish thinking that Adam Smith’s countrymen could no longer recognise the power of his ideas when Mrs Thatcher articulated them. But the role of Europe has been overlooked. It is surely one of the main reasons behind Scottish moves towards separation.

Before Britain joined the EEC in 1973, Scotland’s position in Britain was straightforward. It had held on to its own legal and education systems but the centre of political gravity was London. The high road to the imperial capital was the route Scots usually had to travel if they wanted access to power or influence in the outside world. With the UK in the EEC, and then the EU, Scotland found itself, for the first time since the Reformation and the break with Rome, in a triangular relationship with the English. 

On the continent, the architects of European integration were quick to realise in the late 1970s and 1980s that this presented a tremendous opportunity to weaken the foundations and undermine the integrity of the country most sceptical of European integration: the United Kingdom. The apparat talked of a “Europe of the Regions” and flooded Scotland — and Ulster and Wales — with “investment”. New bridges, roads and arts festivals resulted, always stamped with the cursed flag of Europe with its twelve golden stars on a blue background. As ever, many voters had trouble grasping the idea that they were being bribed with their own money. Inevitably, many in the Scottish political class (who loved the attention from Brussels and the chance to pose as being good Europeans) responded by becoming fanatically and unthinkingly pro-EU.

But it wasn’t an unthinking response on Salmond’s part. He had considered the subject a great deal, seeing in the European project a way to persuade Scots that breaking up the UK was not an inward-looking narrow-minded piece of constitutional vandalism but instead a supposedly expansive, internationalist act. Salmond had learnt at the feet of Jim Sillars, the winner for the SNP of the famous Govan by-election in Glasgow in 1988. Sillars, an extraordinary autodidact and thinker of the kind the Labour movement used to produce, has always pursued arguments where his intellect takes him. 

He started as a left-winger, devising the independence in Europe concept in the 1970s partly because he viewed Europe as a means by which to corrode and destroy the authority of the British state. When he left Labour, via a failed breakaway Independent Scottish Labour Party, Sillars joined the SNP and introduced the party leadership to the idea. The policy was adopted and when Salmond became leader in 1990 he turned it into the centrepiece of his platform.

Sillars and Salmond, as is often the way in small parties, then fell out spectacularly. Sillars went sour on the EU, pursued a career in business and, with the Tory former Secretary of State, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, eventually helped  lead the Scottish end of the campaign to keep Britain out of the euro in 2000. But by that point Salmond had been gifted an open goal: Scottish devolution. The Labour establishment had adopted the cause of home rule as a defensive measure, to prevent Conservative governments based in London “imposing” policy north of the border. New Labour, after holding a referendum in 1997, created the Scottish parliament. Advocates of the policy such as George Robertson declared at the time that devolution would kill the SNP “stone-dead”.

It didn’t work, and in the election last year Salmond’s party ended up anything but stone-dead. He won an overall majority, leaving the Unionist cause leaderless ahead of the promised referendum. It would all be perfectly set-up for Salmond, if only it wasn’t for what is happening right now on the continent. Salmond, for most of his extraordinary career, has been swimming with the tide of history on Europe. Now it is running against him. 

If the eurozone states do follow the logic of their botched monetary union, they will next opt for a single treasury and fiscal union to run southern Europe according to German rules. That would leave the ten members of the EU not in the single currency, including the UK and conceivably an independent Scotland, in an interesting position. It would mean a “two-speed Europe” with Scotland trying to ride two horses, simultaneously seeking to separate itself from England but not being inside the much more closely integrated eurozone either. In any event, it is now difficult to imagine the Germans agreeing to such full-scale fiscal integration. More likely is the eventual disintegration of the euro, or its splitting into blocs with the weakest countries falling out entirely.

For a small country such as Scotland, perched on the edge of Europe, such instability would be dangerous. At such a time being in a sound partnership with a bigger neighbour — one with which you share a language, an economy and a history of joint endeavour — could be just the ticket. Luckily for the Scots they have an obvious answer on hand if they want it: maintaining the existing Union with England.

What is left of the Labour party in Scotland has barely even begun to engage with such arguments. The referendum, which I expect Salmond will call in 2014 to coincide with the 700th anniversary of Robert the Bruce’s defeat of the English forces at the battle of Bannockburn, is going to be very difficult for the Unionists to win. But David Cameron, desperate not to be the last British prime minister, seems privately to be taking a keen interest and is scouting actively for ways to persuade the Scots and the English that — in the old Unionist phrase — we are stronger together and weaker apart. Europe’s crisis can help him make that argument.

I realise there are a good many English Conservatives who would welcome Scotland’s departure, mainly because their patience with Scottish special pleading has run out. I understand the frustration but their view has long seemed baffling. Those who want “the Jocks” to hop off seem often also to be arch-Eurosceptics. They appear to have failed to work out that the morning after Scotland left the UK, with television news networks carrying images of the Union flag being lowered over Edinburgh, the loudest cheers would emanate from the seat of the European integrationist project: Brussels.