From Brexit to Breakup: a Scottish View on the EU Referendum

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This piece was also published in Huffington Post on 23rd June 2016

Something we in Scotland learned the hard way in 2014 is that referendum questions are dangerous because they make both choices on the ballot paper seem equally plausible. By giving the people a choice we somehow assume that either option is a safe one. In the EU referendum context, that can make voters view leaving as an equally valid option compared to the status quo of remain. After all, what politician in his right mind would allow the people a democratic choice which might risk economic prosperity and the security of the West?

Of course, it is possible that David Cameron believed that he would never have to follow through on his referendum pledge–either due to the coalition with the Liberal Democrats continuing after 2015–or that in the unlikely event that he did have to hold a referendum, that it could be won easily. So much for that.

The Prime Minister has spent the last few years playing constitutional roulette with the integrity of the United Kingdom and we will discover this week whether his luck, and Britain’s, has finally run out. Such a distillation of the complex ledger of advantages and drawbacks of UK’s EU membership to a simple binary yes or no answer is wholly unequal to the magnitude of the stakes involved in this referendum. Professor Neil Walker of Edinburgh University observes that for most shades of political opinion in the UK and beyond “European ‘membership’ for a country of Britain’s size, influence and location should be less a matter of ‘yes or no’ than one of ‘more or less’.”

As a strong supporter of Scotland staying part of the UK in 2014, I wrote op-eds in the Scotsman, the Daily Record, and Huffington Post criticising Alex Salmond’s grievance and fantasy rich, but policy light, plan for Scotland existing outside the UK. I never imagined there could ever be a more divisive ideological campaign than the Scottish independence referendum, but the EU Referendum has managed it.

The Leave Campaign has replicated Alex Salmond’s Project Fantasy, but with added venom and disinformation in practically every area of policy where voters would like answers. From the £350 million a week we don’t send the EU to the outrageous, oft repeated and xenophobic falsehood from Armed Forces Minister Penny Mordaunt that the UK doesn’t have a veto on Turkey joining the EU.

Like the Yes Campaign in Scotland during the independence referendum, Leave is all about the politics of grievance. Angela Merkel says she hopes the UK stays in the EU; Kate Hoey translates that as Merkel ‘telling the British people how they should vote’.

We are in grim times when Ms Hoey castigates the leader of a liberal democratic Germany, which has entrenched democracy and human dignity as the highest values in its constitutional order since World War Two, yet she is perfectly happy staging Titanic style photo ops on the Thames with a grinning demagogue who the next day was propagandizing a Goebbels-esque poster of helpless Syrian refugees.

Meanwhile, Oxford educated Michael Gove enunciates the words ‘elites’ and ‘experts’ with even more venom than Alex Salmond used to spit ‘Westminster’ – an achievement in itself. Despite his current hostility to experts, one senses that Mr Gove wouldn’t want a road sweeper performing open heart surgery on him anytime soon. There may be some truth to the writer Philip Pullman’s comment that “when a clever man starts advocating stupidity he’s after something and we should watch him.”

Those that want us to leave the EU claim that Britain can be a leading player on the world stage without the constraining influence of our European partners. In reality, the UK has influenced the EU far more than it has been constrained by it. When the UK joined the EU in the 1970s (after twice being vetoed in the 1960s by De Gaulle), it was far more aligned with French interests. But after over four decades of the UK being an EU member, exerting its influence and gaining allies, the EU has, as Professor Jan Werner-Mueller notes, “been reshaped in the image of the UK” and more closely reflects British interests. As highlighted above, the UK has a veto to prevent new countries joining the EU, but so do all other EU members, many of which have populations and politicians opposed, in particular, to Turkey joining.

My point here is not about the merits of countries such as Turkey joining, but rather that the EU is not a static organisation. It is the sum of its parts, which happen to be our European neighbours; not a small Brussels bureaucracy, about the same size as Birmingham City Council, which manages to serve 500 million people. Power in the EU lies not with bureaucrats but with Britain, Germany, France and all the other independent sovereign states which exert control through the European Council. If we can’t lead in Europe among countries that share our concerns and values on so many issues, the idea that we can exert any influence on other continents is for the birds.

If the UK votes to leave the EU then a second independence referendum in overwhelmingly pro- EU Scotland seems likely. Whether Scotland would vote to leave the UK in a second independence referendum following a Brexit is the million dollar question. Polling figures from Professor John Curtice indicate a possible post-Brexit swing of between 3 and 6 points, creating a narrow majority for independence of 51 or 52%, but still short of the 60% figure which the SNP is apparently looking for before it would risk holding a second referendum. All of these figures are, of course, purely hypothetical but they show that the risk of a second referendum and independence is real following a UK vote to leave the EU.

As a strong opponent of Scottish independence last time around and a strong supporter of being part of the EU, Brexit would certainly change my calculation when weighing up which way I would lean in a second Scottish independence referendum. Here are some thoughts:

Nicola Sturgeon has proved to be a much more able, more likeable, and less divisive First Minister than Alex Salmond. If the Scottish Government decided to hold a second independence referendum she would be a much more convincing advocate of independence than her predecessor. That would not be enough in itself though.

Ms Sturgeon would also have to make a significantly stronger case for Scotland’s ability to go it alone than was presented in 2014. The collapse in the price of oil since the last referendum has, of course, blown one major hole in the financial viability of an independent Scotland. However, there is more to the Scottish economy than just oil and a resurgence in the price of oil (possibly caused by geopolitical turmoil such as Brexit?) could change the context again.

What would change the economic equation significantly are both the consequences of Brexit to the Scottish economy, as well as the prospects of Scotland being able to join the EU. In 2014, EU figures such as former EU Commission President, José Manuel Barroso, did everything possible to discourage Scotland from seceding from one of its member states, the United Kingdom, lest it encourage separatist movements in other EU member states (with Catalonia being the most prominent example). That position would no longer hold after Brexit as the EU would no longer have a vested interest in maintaining the territorial integrity of a former member state. Indeed, a Scottish application to join might be positively welcomed to remind other restless states of the potential pitfalls of leaving the EU. Furthermore, as former European Court judge Sir David Edward noted at the time of the Scottish referendum, there is no question that Scotland could become an EU member; the only question would be the terms and timing of it.

Most people in Scotland, myself included, have no wish to repeat the experience of the 2014 Scottish referendum anytime soon. Neither, though, do we wish to be dragged out of the EU against our collective will, or for Great Britain to become Lesser England. However, a vote to leave the EU may well herald the beginning of the end of the United Kingdom as we know it today. So when casting your ballot on Thursday please consider the futures of all the peoples and nations of the British Isles and vote to remain in the EU.

David Miles is a Carnegie Scholar at the University of St Andrews researching American and German constitutionalism. He has written for the Huffington Post, the Daily Beast and the Scotsman, and is Managing Editor of Global Politics.

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About David Miles

David Miles is a former Carnegie Scholar and has a PhD from the University of St Andrews in Scotland, where he teaches in the School of International Relations. Apart from writing for, editing, and publishing Global Politics, his writing has appeared in the Daily Beast, Carnegie Ethics Online, Huff Post and the Scotsman. His interests include American political history, US foreign policy, modern German history, American and German constitutional history, the politics of the European Union, peace and conflict studies, and the politics of the Middle East. His book 'Democracy, the Courts, and the Liberal State: a Comparative Analysis of American and German Constitutionalism' will be published by Routledge in 2020.

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