The European Union referendum looks a little different in Scotland than, I suspect, it looks elsewhere in the United Kingdom right now. That is not just because of a pretty solid political coalition around the remain campaign, and some strong polling numbers for remain among the electorate.
An interesting piece of analysis from the Estimating Constituency Opinion project says my home constituency, Edinburgh South, is one of the top five in the UK for remain supporters, with our neighbours Edinburgh North and Leith even more solidly in favour. While other parts of Scotland may not be quite so clear-cut, it is certainly the case that no-one is betting on Scotland voting to leave.
And in that assertion, of course, lies the reality of how the EU referendum is going to be played here. We will talk about the polity of Scotland up against the polity of the rest of the UK. Because everything in Scottish politics has to be about the last referendum. You know, the one about Scotland leaving the union of the UK. The one in which the Scottish National party lost the war but won the peace.
Ever since September 2014, the notion that a second independence referendum rests on some sort of trigger event has been a key narrative through which the SNP has retained and built its pro-independence support, while attempting not to alienate those who recognise the decision has been democratically made. If the UK votes to leave the EU but Scotland has voted to remain, so the argument goes, this could be seen as justification for the repeat of that ‘once in a lifetime’ independence referendum within about five years.
Once in a lifetime. Someone else used that phrase recently, didn’t they? Oh yes, it was George Osborne on Newsnight talking about the upcoming EU referendum. But that is not going to be the only linguistic similarity between the independence referendum and the Euro referendum we spot over the coming weeks. Because we are of course again talking about sovereignty, we are again discussing the value of a union of nations, and we are again facing an argument against that union rooted in nationalism.
Scottish Labour will find its internationalist and social democratic arguments for remaining in the EU will chime very comfortably with the internationalist and social democratic arguments it deployed two years ago in favour of Scotland remaining in the UK. They were strong then and they are strong now.
But the SNP is set for a European volte-face on many of its anti-UK arguments, and faces a tougher sell to a core vote, whose support for the EU has long been akin to its support for the monarchy – an electoral necessity, not a point of principle.
After all, when Nicola Sturgeon said recently that, ‘there are lots of jobs and investment in Scotland dependent on our membership of the EU single market’, it surely cannot have escaped her notice that the same point was made, quite successfully, by the Better Together campaign about Scotland and the UK. How can she deploy one version of that argument and decry the other?
When she said in the Scottish Parliament, ‘we believe that decisions about Scotland should be taken by the people who care most about the future of Scotland – those of us who live and work here’, did she not hear in that call an echo of Nigel Farage who says precisely that but substitutes ‘Brussels’ for ‘Westminster’ and ‘Britain’ for ‘Scotland’?
We should expect the EU referendum debate to be more muted in Scotland than elsewhere, precisely because the party of government here does not want their hypocrisy in these matters exposed to too much scrutiny. But it will also be sidelined by the small matter of a Scottish general election which, rightly, will take far more of our focus up to 5 May.
Both of these battles look, for now, like foregone conclusions. Scotland will return another SNP government, and Scotland will vote to remain in the EU. But some time soon the good voters of Scotland will run out of patience with an SNP which has perfected the art of looking both ways on every issue. When they do, Scottish Labour can proudly point to its consistent, principled stance throughout and maybe, just maybe, start to earn back the respect of the Scottish electorate.
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
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