28 August 2014

Better Together's European boomerang

The line looked initially promising: would, could an independent Scotland get into the European Union? Would we find ourselves, shivering alone on the north Atlantic frontier, our nationals shipped back from France and Spain and the Netherlands, in exchange for boatloads of Germans and Belgians, as our free movement rights are extinguished with the Union? Would Scottish businesses, buying and selling in Europe, find their profits squeezed by new tariffs and trading barriers, banished beyond the common market?  

Risks and uncertainty, doubts and anxieties, Vote No. Just last week, Douglas Alexander incorporated the European threat into his patter for the plum spot on the nightly news. Unanswered questions, was his riff.  Across all sectors of its rhetoric, including that notorious referendum broadcast, the No campaign has discernibly ratchetted up a line I identified back in June, when it transmogrified into No Thanks. The nub of it:

The interest of Better Together's new slogan, for me, is that it implicitly recognises the attractions of independence. Jettisoning, or at least backgrounding, their attempt to persuade us that we're better together, the new motto recalls the closing speech of the defence lawyer, who suspects that his client is guilty, but who invokes the burden of proof to demand an acquittal. Sure, the character in the dock looks shifty, isn't entirely trustworthy, and you probably don't much like him, but the prosecution haven't proven their case. I know you want to send this guy down. I know you wont enjoy setting my client free. But look, members of the jury, the evidence just doesn't stack up. There are too many holes in the case. You can't take a decision this big with all of these questions outstanding. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is reasonable doubt.

Even if you find independence tempting, even if part of you wants to vote Yes, you cannot responsibly do so on the basis of the prospectus we've been given. The European scare fits neatly into this wider strategy. And even better for those arguing against independence, the Yes campaign and the Scottish Government are structurally incapable of resolving the uncertainties Better Together (sometimes) correctly identify. Politically, the secession of a part of an EU state is unprecedented. Legally, there's no mechanism written into the treaties to answer the case, and to put it beyond doubt how an independent Scotland would be treated. 

EU treaties aren't comprehensive texts, devoted to theorising about abstract possibilities: they keep the real world in view. If you ask a lawyer about Scotland's EU status after a Yes vote on the 18th of September, they can only tell you a fraction of the story. You have to hunt beyond the letter of law for answers. And as Professor Michael Keating notes in the Press and Journal  this week, forcing Scotland out of the European Union, only to readmit it, with all of the unnecessary turmoil and frustration and costs that that would impose on all 28 Member States, makes little sense for anyone. The accession process may have its challenges and its setbacks, it might take longer than anticipated to achieve full integration - but a smooth transition seems the only common sense option. Is this guaranteed? No, it isn't. But is it the most realistic outcome, based on all the evidence before us? You bet. 

The No campaign isn't really interested in whether independence in Europe is viable or not. It isn't interested in the nuance, complexity, or inevitable uncertainties which trouble all future hypotheticals. Their message is far simpler: risk, risk, risk: vote no. Demand the impossible, and when the impossible duly does not materialise, declare your opponent a shiftless, unconvincing sneak. Ask for unobtainable evidence, and crown yourself the victor when the man on trial can't produce it.

This is the politics of inertia, and it is potentially highly effective, contrasting the hazardous murk of independence against the solid, calculable characteristics of the status quo. The fatal problem with the No campaign trying to use European uncertainties in this way, however, is that it assumes our heads button up backwards. They assume we've not been paying attention.

Helpfully, the former Tory MP Douglas Carswell decided to take the opportunity today to remind us of the absolute peril in which Britain's relationships with the rest of Europe sit, by defecting to UKIP.  His reasons? Cameron's lack of credibility on EU negotiation. Remember, the Prime Minister's line is that he'll hie him to Brussels, to repatriate lost powers and restore British sovereignty by renegotiating the treaties. But which powers had he particularly in mind?

Er. None of that is tremendously clear, but from the patter of his senior colleagues, it seems Cameron wants to persuade States to compromise on essential and long-standing features of the common market, including the free movement of people within the European Union. As a number of the Prime Minister's critics have correctly identified, renegotiation is a slogan, not a policy. It is a paper tiger with which to fend off the eurosceptics at his back for a year or two, but no answer to the disastrous incoherence gnawing at Cameron's party. 

Carswell's departure today underlines the implausibility of the Prime Minister getting his Harold Wilson moment. The increasingly vocal and emboldened voices of euroscepticism in the Conservative Party won't be bought off by paper promises. They're interested in the brass tacks of European policy. They want fundamental repudiation of core principles of European Union law -- or they want us out. Waving a vague bit of paper won't placate them. Indeed, it is increasingly difficult to see Cameron producing anything to placate them.  And if Scotland remains within the Union after September, these problems are our problems too.

If renegotiation is candyfloss, we cannot ignore the realistic possibility that Britain will crash out of the European Union, allowing the Lord Chancellor and Home Secretary to pursue their cherished goal of repealing basic human rights statutes, pulling us out of the European Convention, and opening the door on transporting people to countries where we fully expect them to be tortured, subject to inhuman or degrading treatment, and the flagrant denial of justice. It is an absolutely dismal - and not wildly speculative - vista. 

Is it guaranteed, is Britain doomed to this course? Of course not. Politics has its shifts and eddies. It rarely moves in straight lines. Some mysterious, majestic intervention may drive back the tide. But the smart money says that the greatest risk to Scotland EU membership is continuing Union. If Better Together want to talk about risks to our membership of the European Union, that's grand. But I'm pretty sure that the European boomerang will come back to clatter them on the noggin. 

Let's talk about risks. Let's open up the hopping mad box of frogs which is the parliamentary Conservative Party, and treat their demands and declared ideology seriously. Yes or No, there are calculable risks and opportunities in Europe on both sides of the constitutional argument. But if Carswell's intervention today shows one thing, it is that Better Together's complacent discourse, which sets the uncertainties of independence against the securities of the status quo, has no credibility whatever.


  1. Of course, Unionists are absolutely terrified that Scotland will be forced to become independent and forego all the economic advantages and security of the Union (have you clocked what I'm doing here...?) Hopefully these Scottish Unionists will listen to the wise arguments of the freedom-fighting independence champion Douglas Carswell.

  2. This would be a worthy opinion piece in the Scottish MSM, but sadly it wont be.

    Why is that?

    1. Hopefully we might see arguments along these lines being aired before the 18th.

  3. In the UK Union and out of the EU Union,or out of the UK union,and in the EU union,that is it? That's supposing that Westminster will hold an in out referendum on Europe! not 100% guaranteed but then how much does Cameron want to hold onto power? jump in bed with who? UKIP,of course he will hold the referendum of course he will can he campaign to remain in the EU? maybe! with all this in out and shake it all about its like the hokey cokey,and all we want is stability! For me its out of the UK into the EU,and I don't believe there will be any problems with seamless entry,and the UK are we leaving or dissolving it? who will be continuing state? just saying it does that make it so? who can answer these questions?

  4. LPW:
    'Let's open up the hopping mad box of frogs which is the parliamentary Conservative Party, and treat their demands and declared ideology seriously.'

    Yes - I'm not really sure why, but Westminster politicians seems to be a much less impressive bunch than they used to be, and the Tories seem to be the worst in terms of decay. I'm not saying Holyrood is any better mind, but am sure you can see a decay in quality.

    I expect a No vote but the coming UKip / Tory clashes may carry a huge sting in the tail - could it be that an ineffectual Tory party is going to ensure the fracture of the UK anyway?