Many issues will impact attitudes to Scottish politics in 2016: people’s daily lives and the weather amongst these. Europe and global events, the fate of local government and public services will compete with the Scottish Government elections for people’s attention.
Involvement in politics undoubtedly was at a highpoint during the referendum, ensuring that the campaigns of 2016 come close will be an important task for all. The Scottish election in May has the potential to do this. The impact and timing of Cameron’s European gamble is another matter (we will consider these on another occasion).
Democratic Left see the importance of politics both within and out with parliaments. A progressive Scottish Government bolstered by a range of progressive parliamentary voices would be the best outcome in May if coupled with strong extra-parliamentary activity. The voting system for the Scottish elections offers opportunities. There is a need to remind people that the regional lists offer a potential way round major party dominance. This is important nationally because the SNP are not without limitations and Scottish Labour is unlikely to benefit substantially from any kind of Caledonian Corbyn effect.
Voting tactically for the best placed progressive candidate on your regional list will maximise the possibility of a radical rainbow of MSPs in addition to the government. It will also minimise the chances of the Tories or the Liberals getting into parliament and undoubtedly acting as apologists for austerity.
The Greens and in some places RISE may be the best vehicles for votes but each region will have its own ‘local’ characteristics which will suggest which list to choose. The individuals who top each list are important in this regard. These women and men if elected can connect campaigns and the policy implemented at Holyrood. The election of progressive MSPs can also add to the discussion on how to win more powers for Scotland: those that put anti-poverty, peace, people and planet before profit, pollution and the abuse of others.
Discussion needs to start now about how to get the best from the election campaign as well as from the result: a result that marks a real step forward in achieving a different kind of Scotland and a different kind of world.
Many issues will impact attitudes to Scottish politics in 2016: people’s daily lives and the weather amongst these. Europe and global events, the fate of local government and public services will compete with the Scottish Government elections for people’s attention.
by John Finnie MSP, featured in the latest edition of Perspectives. Copies are now available at Word Power, West Nicolson Street, Edinburgh.
Ever since being asked to write an article, a couple of months ago, on Scotland’s now two year old police service, its already rancorous birth has been compounded by almost weekly controversies.
Since the new service started there has been a wholesale change in policing methods: armed officers have appeared on our streets attending routine non firearms incidents; and a significant number of Scotland’s children have been stopped by the police, asked to ‘consent’ to being searched, then having their mobile phone numbers requested.
I’m a member of the Scottish Parliament’s Police Committee and during evidence taking have been assured by senior officers that those unpopular, and in one instance legally questionable, practices had stopped only to subsequently learn that’s not the case. Whilst this information was not given on oath, as senior public servants it was reasonable to assume that we would not subjected to false, misleading or inaccurate statements.
So what is going on? Who is really in charge? And was the First Minister wise to recently give the chief constable a vote of confidence when many think she should be giving him his P45?
I will examine the background to Scotland’s police service, what checks and balances exist, whether the advent of the single police service heralded the police being the controversial political issue they have become, whether those controversies have another genesis, and what the future might hold.
The difficult birth of Police Scotland
Until fairly recent times it was widely accepted that the principal of policing by consent applied to the various constabularies discharging their duties in Scotland.
In April 2013, Scotland’s eight regional forces and ‘central services’, such as the Scottish Police College, were merged into a single entity, Police Scotland, since which time the police’s commitment to that concept has been seriously questioned by local and national politicians and the Scottish Human Rights Commission.
I fought for and secured improving amendments to the legislation and, as Chair of the Parliament’s Cross party Group on Human Rights, was delighted my proposed revised oath to be sworn by all new recruits; “I, do solemnly, sincerely and truly declare and affirm that I will faithfully discharge the duties of the office of constable with fairness, integrity, diligence and impartiality, and that I will uphold fundamental human rights and accord equal respect to all people, according to law,” was unanimously agreed by Parliament. The previous oath made no mention of “upholding human rights”.
The transition from 9 bodies to one was tortuously slow. Police are very rank- conscious and the preparatory work for the new service had exactly the same number of ‘work-streams’ as there were assistant chief constables so everyone got a new, albeit temporary, title. Self-interest among those individuals lead to inertia and it was only after the appointment of Police Scotland’s first chief constable, Stephen House, hitherto the chief constable of Strathclyde Police, that things got moving.
Stephen House is a former Metropolitan Police Officer who believes that a ‘performance culture’ is what is required to evidence sound policing practice. So, whilst some things, such as public reassurance, are very hard to quantify, it is easy to count the number of drivers charged with not wearing a seat belt or the number who have dropped litter. Now, as someone who owes their life to wearing a seat belt, I place very great store in educating the public about road traffic safety and, of course, I dislike litter. However, in each of those instances, if the offender is someone who will respond to advice, then much better that, rather than reach for their notebook, officers deploy their most significant power: the power of discretion. That way you have two citizens grateful for not being charged and two future potential witnesses to help the police. But if you give a clear focus on numbers then that’s what front-line officers will concentrate on.
The period running up to the amalgamation was frenzied. On paper at least, the scrutiny process was designed to be enhanced. Each council ward now has its own Policing Plan and each Local Authority its own Police Committee, rather than the joint board system of members for various authorities in all but two of the former forces. Overseeing it all, the Scottish Police Authority, a board of appointees with various backgrounds and officials with a variety of skills.
Arming the police
Until about 20 years ago, the Scottish Police service was always unarmed. Trained officers could be sent to incidents where firearms were needed, invariably the aftermath of an armed robbery, a murder using firearms or whilst on close protection duties for VIPs. About 20 years ago saw the advent of the Armed Response Vehicle: two highly trained uniformed officers in a vehicle on constant patrol. Within the last decade each of the forces had them but only Strathclyde and Lothian & Borders officers have the firearms carried overtly on the officers; Tayside’s ARV crews carried the weapons covertly whilst the other forces had weapons contained within a locked safe in the boot of the vehicle with withdrawal and use requiring the approval of a senior officer.
When a constituent contacted me saying they were concerned armed officers were patrolling on foot in the Inverness area I was initially sceptical but I made some enquiries and found it to be correct.
One of the changes that followed the move to the single service was the significant change I encountered trying to get replies to constituents’ enquiries. I wrote to the chief constable asking if there was a plan to put in place a correspondence protocol and was effectively told ‘we’ll decide what’s important’. For those reasons, rather than send off another letter which could go unanswered for months, I raised the matter through the Herald newspaper.
Police Scotland’s response was dismissive. I was told that only I and one other had ever complained. I sought and secured a meeting with the Assistant Chief Constable responsible for firearms and invited all my Highlands and Islands MSP colleagues to attend.
Now, almost a year and three official reports on we are told the ‘terrorist threat’ means our armed officers will retain their ‘standing authority’ to openly carry their firearms and they will still intervene in non-firearms incidents ‘using their professional judgement’. My request that the guns be returned to the safe in the car boot has been roundly rejected.
Stop and search
When used proportionately, stopping and searching citizens is legitimate crime prevention tool for the police. Indeed, common law powers of search and statutory powers relating to things such as drugs and weapons have always been a feature of effective policing. The laws relating to stop in search did not alter when Police Scotland came into being, nor did the threat level suddenly change what did alter was the police’s approach to stop and search.
One year in, we learned that levels of stop and search in Scotland exceeded those of the Metropolitan Police and New York Police Department.
More reports and explanations, and then the sad spectacle of Assistant Chief Constable Mawson, in the full light of the resulting publicity, explaining to Parliament that the ‘loss’ of “20,086 (search) records …. between May and July last year’ was because, ‘a computer programmer pressed the wrong button”. I’m not sure even he believed it, but within a few days the story changed anyway.
Whether terrorism, organised crime or drugs, the police like to tell us their operations are far from random, rather they are “intelligence led”. Of course, were that the case then we wouldn’t see communities targeted for stop and search operations resulting in four out of five stopped and searched having nothing on them, something the hapless ACC described as ‘a good success story’.
Later, having assured Parliament that searching of under-12s would cease, only for it to continue, the chief constable boasted he can and does ask for explanations from officers, bizarrely adding “that is quite an impressive development as far as human rights are concerned.” The ‘development’ that has seen young people stopped, searched, and had inappropriate details requested is ‘impressive’: an impressive disregard of human rights which will now stop.
Every profession has its own language and when we are told “there are no targets for volume of stop and search” yet are aware that each of Scotland’s Divisional Commanders has 23 key performance indicators to satisfy, you can see how scepticism can arise.
Policing the polis
Councillors on local authority committees have little to scrutinise and were cynically by-passed on the armed police issue whilst the Police Authority, initially distracted by a turf war about who’d be in charge of what, has been absent without trace on both the armed police and stop and search issues, belatedly and ineptly reporting events long since pored over by the press and politicians.
Since I became an independent MSP, the government no longer has a majority on either the Justice or Police Committees and seem to wish to characterise criticism of the police as ‘an opposition campaign’. I fear that misjudges the important scrutiny role expected of parliamentarians and, whilst we must all support the rule of law, that does not mean a blank cheque to an over-bearing policing style.
What do we learn from all of this? Well, it’s not that all the Police Scotland does is bad. The proactive work targeting serial domestic violence offenders has rightly been widely welcomed by Women’s Aid and others. Yet, even with that positive issue, rather than work with the legislative tools they are given, the police became active and vocal supporters of ending the age old Scots law convention of corroboration, the requirement for two separate sources of evidence to convict someone. That issue was eventually kicked into not very long grass by the Scottish Government, and will emerge again at the end of the year in time for proponents of this dangerous change to pontificate that some rights are more important than others.
Those opposed to the creation of the single service will feel vindicated that the series of events I have related show that they were right. I disagree; I believe they show a single-minded chief constable, unchallenged by his fellow chief officers, who isn’t held in check by his Police Authority, and who needs reigned in.
Sir Stephen House is quick to say he understands the need for him to be accountable; however, you do not need to be an expert in body language to read that’s not really his view.
I support local policing, and were I still a local councillor I would have been asking questions about armed officers on my beat. Why it was not picked up at local or national level? In fairness to the police they did tell the Police Authority. It was the last sentence of Paragraph ‘5.9’ of agenda item ‘8’: “Work is therefore well underway and on track in terms of Armed Policing provision for Day 1 when a standing authority for Armed Response Vehicles (ARV), Tactical Firearms Unit (TFU), airport coverage and other policing operations will be implemented.” Now, despite my intimate knowledge of the police service, I would not have read it as ‘routine arming’. Deliberate or not, it is now academic because, as with many other aspects of the controversies, the story has constantly changed with there being several versions of how it happened.
A colleague on the Police Committee recently asked the chief constable ‘if a witness in a police investigation changed their evidence as quickly and as often as that, they would be considered to be unreliable, would they not?’ Sir Stephen House replied ‘we would certainly be interested in why the story was changing. We are trying to explain why the story has changed.’
The story that is Police Scotland needs to change and, whilst that may only happen with the departure of the present chief constable, we must all remain vigilant and demand that our police service ‘uphold fundamental human rights and accord equal respect to all people, according to law’. I’ve not given up hope yet!
Well it’s not boring. Nicola is First Minister with a gender balanced cabinet. Alex looks set to return to London to open up a second front and Jim will lead Scottish Labour and try to find a seat in Holyrood. Added to this all of Scotland’s civil society; the unions, the media, the parties, the churches, culture and citizens have had a democratic shake up like never before. Now we need to look to the future.
Here is a message from Stuart Fairweather:
“Tomorrow 97% of people over the age of 16 living in Scotland have the right to vote. We should encourage and support all friends, family, neighbours and workmates to use their vote. Democratic Left members and supporters will be amongst those that take part in this huge democratic event.
DL members have been involved in the campaign in many different ways. We are unlikely to all vote in the same way. Accordingly Perspectives has given coverage to the Yes and No positions.
A Yes vote looks likely to many to provide the potential for progressive change. For other a No vote is seen as a route to equally important outcomes.
DL’s National Council plans to meet on September 20th to discuss the result of the vote and consider the possibilities it creates. All members and supporters are welcome to use the e-mail group to express their views and contribute to what will be an ongoing discussion.”
In 2012 Democratic Left Scotland commissioned Sandy Moffat to paint a portrait of Scottish political theorist Tom Nairn. It was unveiled at the launch of a collection of his work “Old Nations, Auld Enemies, New Times, Selected Essays” on Monday 15th September 2014 in the Martin Hall, New College Edinburgh. The collection was compiled by Pete Ramand and Jamie Maxwell and is available here.
There’s a drawing for the portrait currently on show in Peacock Visual Arts. Aberdeen as part of Sandy’s exhibition “Paintings as Arguments”.
After Falkirk and Grangemouth, where next?
The article below should be seen as a contribution to an ongoing discussion. It draws on discussions with members of Democratic Left Scotland and others in late 2013. Any comments would be very welcome.
“… we represent the only real organised challenge in society to the values and views of our bankrupt establishment.” States Len McCluskey in relation to the events of 2013. Events we are told that help illuminate ‘the nature of power in society today’. A telling assertion that suggests that the Labour Party, as it is now at least, offers little in terms of taking on neo-liberalism and the interests of capital. Additionally Unite’s General Secretary also states that globalisation renders our politicians and governments weak in the face of the ‘almost unlimited power of private ownership to act as it pleases’.
Few on the Left would take issue with the general thrust of these comments and it is easy to see how they were informed by the events at Falkirk and Grangemouth but given the outcome some discussion is required.
Falkirk: At one point Falkirk was represented by the popular and effective MP Denis Canavan. That was before New Labour and boundary changes. Then the disastrous Eric Joyce prompted a selection battle. Unite unlike other unions Public Commercial and Services (PCS), Fire Brigades Union (FBU) and Rail Maritime Transport (RMT) have emphasised the recapturing of the Labour Party. Unison and GMB are more agnostic. This leaves Unite alone with an active strategy of ensuring more working class and anti-austerity MPs get elected to Westminster. A strategy that means taking on the Labour Party career machine where Lord Sainsbury supported candidates are pushed up the ladder of patronage. Interestingly many in Falkirk and elsewhere within the Labour Party opposed this challenge from Unite. For many in Miliband’s Labour Party Unite are seen as ‘the other’.
Conversely the fact that our biggest trade union feels the need to open up this second front to take on the bosses as a class, not just as employers, is remarkable. This is because Labour are considered, as suggested above, as ideologically and practically redundant when it comes to supporting legislation and action that will allow workers to challenge the power of private ownership.
In Falkirk this saw Stevie Deans, Unite’s leading lay official, divide his time between defending workers at INEOS and as he saw it promoting their interests via a changing Labour Party. Whilst the likelihood of Westminster passing laws that can effectively challenge globalisation can be debated the tactic of a ‘political’ as well as industrial strategy is understandable. Working to raise people’s political consciousness in a way that supports them to take part in the democratic process is a desirable proposition. Whether that is entirely what was happening is another question. However what is apparent is where the Labour Party establishment are challenged in selection battles for relatively safe seats; things can become very competitive and very mucky. More energy and money would appear to get spent on securing a favoured candidate rather than building political understanding and engagement of new and potential members.
All this effort is premised on Unite’s belief that the Labour Party is the only realistic potential political vehicle for change with all other options being considered fanciful or unworthy of consideration, this side of the UK general election in 2015. In this context Unite’s actions on the electoral front seem understandable. The connection between workers and all political parties is distant and becoming increasingly so. Labour retains a historic link to working people in realms of recoverable memory but the reality is different particularly out with the public sector.
Grangemouth: The private sector is different. As for all workers it is hard to hold onto gains but in the private sector asserting ‘moral guardianship’ over the relationship between the production process and a community is fiercely contested by the need for ever growing profit. In spite of this and the dirty and dangerous aspects of the work at INEOS the workforce were considered well organised and relatively well rewarded. The recent attacks by the owners on the workforce’s pensions had been resisted back in 2008; wages this year were increased against a background of erosion elsewhere.
But nothing stays the same. Changes to the ownership, access to raw materials, competition, the balance sheet, and scope of future production were taking place. This impacted on the workforce’s leverage over the manufacturing processes. Labour could still be withdrawn but INEOS had repositioned itself in relation to the chain of effects. It could control the turning on and off of the tap, the timing of this and to a degree the consequences.
Given Stevie Deans involvement in events in Falkirk they went for him too. Whether this provocation was simply vindictive or calculated is largely academic (except of course for Stevie as an individual). INEOS created a situation where a straight-forward strike was of little consequence to them. They were challenging the UK government, Holyrood and the workforce to fund the costs of the modification of the plant and their continued and increased profit margins. A bi-product was further reducing the terms and conditions of the workforce and taking on the union at the plant.
At that juncture retaining the jobs was important. INEOS had argued that Grangemouth without investment was becoming a liability. Its threat to close the refinery needed to be taken seriously. By the end of October it was too late to call their bluff, irrespective of the reality of Jim Ratcliffe’s bank balance, without having adequate local and national alliances in place to do so.
Where next: Hindsight is a wonderful thing and it is perhaps too easy for those at a distance to ask what if? But it is important that learning takes place.
Governments in London and Edinburgh had already agreed in principle at least to fund Jim Radcliffe and INEOS in their venture to re-fit Grangemouth with the capacity to process shale gas shipped from the USA to the Forth. The environmental and economic rationale for this only makes sense in the context of supporting the globalised tax avoiding pursuit of ever increasing profit. Whilst the media and others to some degree acknowledged the questionable moral position of Jim Radcliffe and INEOS they did little to fundamentally challenge his position. The plant have morally been ‘ours’ But the profit was Ratcliffe’s.
David Cameron compounded this by attacking, Unite, Ed Miliband and Stevie Deans. Labour in London appeared largely compromised by its electoral ambitions. Johann Lamont said nothing. Attempts were made by Unite to ensure the ‘bad bosses’ had nowhere to hide but the alliance between Britain’s political class and INEOS remained intact. Ideologically, globalised profiteering might not be considered pretty but right to exploit Grangemouth was not contested. Whilst people spoke about employment and the local community, the Scottish economy, or with Britain fuel needs no concrete alternative people’s alliance was formed.
For Unite, and other unions, industrial relations are informed by the right to withdraw labour. But little seems to be done to strengthen control and influence over the productive forces when advances have been made and negotiations are taking place. Jim Ratcillfe would appear to have been in sole control of the information and decision making relating to the future of Grangemouth. Does direct workforce involvement in the management and ownership of manufacturing needs considered? Limitations need to be taken into account but waiting for reluctant politicians to effectively legislate equally seems like a long haul. Strikes, occupations and work-ins must remain part of the equipment of challenging exploitation but ways need to be found to consolidate and expand control over wages, conditions, but also the means of production as part of the wider economy. However controversial this would appear to be, a more direct route to limiting and transforming relations with global capitalists is not on the horizon.
The European elections, the referendum and the 2015 general election result could provide us with a renewed political landscape upon which to build the strength of our movement. This will take hard work and imagination. However there also remains the need to find an effective political party that does not prioritise profiteering. It would be welcome if the Labour Party as an institution could be moved in that direction. Working people however cannot remain still whilst real wages are being reduced and the economy and environment are being continually exploited for the needs of the few. Unite needs to connect to this resistance if it wishes to contribute to an effective challenge to the values and views of our bankrupt establishment.
In the debate about whether Scotland should be an independent country, three major topics have proved to be both predictably contentious and genuinely problematic:
- Scotland’s relationship with the EU in a context where the institutions of the EU are being reshaped in response to the ongoing crisis in the euro-zone, and where, once a new settlement emerges, an in/out referendum on EU membership seems likely to be held, either in the UK as a whole or, if Scotland is independent by then, in the rest of the UK;
- The monetary and financial options open to an independent Scotland and their implications for fiscal policy;
- The defence and foreign policies of an independent Scotland, with particular reference to nuclear weapons, the intelligence services and membership of NATO.
In the current issue of Perspectives, we review the first of these topics. In the autumn and winter issues, we shall cover the other two. Thereafter, we plan to commission an article setting out the constructive case for maintaining the Union and to convene a roundtable discussion on the substance, conduct and quality of the referendum debate, inviting participants to reflect on what it tells us about the state of our society and the condition of our democracy.
Independence in Europe: a reality check
Until last year, Alex Salmond and his ministers repeatedly claimed that an independent Scotland would automatically inherit all the UK’s ties and treaty obligations. By analogy with the “velvet divorce” between the Czech Republic and Slovakia, they assumed that once the Union had been dissolved, Scotland and the residual UK (rUK) would inherit the same legal status as successor states. At a press conference in September 2012, José Manuel Barroso, president of the European commission, confuted both claim and assumption, explaining his views at greater length in an interview for the BBC given in December.
Barroso’s intervention should not have come as a surprise: he was merely repeating the position set out by his predecessor Romano Prodi, who in April 2004 told the European parliament that:
“When a part of the territory of a member state ceases to be part of that state – for instance, because the territory has become an independent state – the treaties will no longer apply to that territory. In other words, a newly independent region would, by the fact of its independence, become a third country with respect to the Union, and the treaties would, from the date of its independence, not apply any more.”
The legal basis of Prodi’s view is unclear, but this hardly matters. There are no precedents for the Scottish case. The velvet divorce occurred in 1993, long before the Czech Republic and Slovakia applied to join the EU as separate states. No existing member state has ever split into two, so the question of what happens if both parts want to stay in the EU or if one wants to stay and the other to leave, has never arisen. The political reality is that an independent Scotland would not automatically be a member, but would have to go through the same accession process as have all but the original six member states, and would need to gain the approval of all 27 existing member states (28 after Croatia joins on 1 July).
After some initial huffing and puffing, the SNP sought to play down the difference between their previous assurances of a seamless transition to “independence in Europe” and the prospect that now beckoned of potentially fraught three-way negotiations between Edinburgh, London and Brussels, followed by formal ratification in each member state. John Swinney, for example, declared:
“Assuming there is a yes vote as a result of the referendum, Scotland will still be at that stage a part of the UK. We have always accepted that there has to be negotiation about the details and terms of Scotland’s membership of the EU. Crucially, that would take place at a time when we are still part of the EU, of which we have been members for 40 years.”
(The use of the plural “members” in Swinney’s final sentence reveals his reluctance to accept, or at any rate admit, the difference between being part of a member state and becoming a new state, the central point – of law or Realpolitik, as you prefer – that Barroso, and before him Prodi, had insisted on.)
A timetable for transition
In a bid to restore credibility and regain the initiative, on 5 February 2013 the Scottish government unveiled a timetable that begins immediately after a presumed yes vote in the referendum – then still expected to be held in October 2014, but subsequently set for 18 September – and runs through to independence day on 31 March 2016, followed by the Holyrood election in May. A decision about whether Scotland would participate in the Westminster election due in May 2015 will be taken after the referendum. This schedule raises two questions: Will the EU authorities be willing to open talks with Edinburgh before Scotland achieves formal independence, while Edinburgh and London are still haggling over the terms of independence? And if so, could both sets of negotiations be concluded in the space of 18 months (in practice, only 17 months, allowing one month off for the Westminster election campaign)?
The answer to the first question is almost certainly yes. Neither London nor Brussels will address any of the issues to be settled by negotiation as long as they remain hypothetical, so the Scottish government cannot expect to start talks prior to the referendum, a fact of political life that voters, demanding more information before making up their minds, will simply have to live with. But assuming a yes vote, there is nothing in EU law that precludes a territory that has voted for independence negotiating its accession, while still sorting out the terms of a divorce settlement. And it would clearly be in the interests of all member states to avoid the legal and commercial disruption that would ensue if, on independence day, Scotland were to be removed from the EU until its application to join is approved. Provided everyone co-operates, much of the groundwork could be done before secession. But formally, Scotland would have to be a state before it could accede. Thus, a gap opens up between secession and accession. The formalities take time: accession negotiations with Croatia, for example, were completed in 2011, but national ratification, which is entirely a matter for individual member states, took two more years.
Complications and delays could also arise from the fact that during the transition period, Scotland would continue to be represented in the European Council by the UK government. Barring his unexpected demise or defenestration, at least until May 2015 that government will be headed by David Cameron, whose policy of “less Europe, not more” runs counter to the efforts of EU leaders to resolve the crisis in the eurozone by pressing on with further integration in the form of a banking union and a fiscal union. Negotiations over Scotland’s accession could fall foul of attempts by London to secure a revision of the EU treaties or to start the process of withdrawing from the EU after an in/out referendum in the rUK. I shall return to this problem later.
Whether the trilateral negotiations could be completed on the timescale envisaged no one knows. In their legal advice to the UK government on the consequences of Scottish independence, Professor James Crawford of Cambridge University and Professor Alan Boyle of Edinburgh University express scepticism, opining that three years would be a more realistic estimate. Certainly the scale of the challenge is considerable. The Scottish government would be negotiating with London over Scotland’s share of the UK’s national debt, public assets and oil and gas revenues, along with currency and financial regulation, pensions and social security, defence and foreign affairs, energy and telecommunications, and other, lesser matters At the same time, it would be negotiating with Brussels over the terms of Scotland’s accession to the EU. That said, since the UK has been a member state for forty years, Scotland is clearly not in the same position as Croatia or Turkey, so presumably its commitment to democracy, the rule of law and human rights could be taken as read.
The road to accession
How difficult would accession negotiations be? As John Kerr points out, much would depend on the stance of the Scottish government itself. It would be unwise for Scotland, as a prospective new member, to seek changes in, say, the Common Agricultural and Fisheries policies, however desirable such changes might be from Scotland’s point of view. The best course would be to stress from the outset that its sole aim is to reinstate the rights enjoyed and obligations accepted when part of the UK. This would make it difficult for EU governments uneasy about Scotland’s accession – notably, Spain, wrestling with the aspirations of Catalans and Basques – to raise objections or cause delay.
But there would still be problems over UK opt-outs from the acquis communautaire, the accumulated legacy of EU policies which new members are required to adopt. In ascending order of difficulty, the three main stumbling-blocks are: the Schengen Agreement on border controls, originally organised outside the framework of the EU, but incorporated into EU law under the Amsterdam Treaty of 1999, with opt-outs for the UK and Ireland; the budget rebate secured by Mrs Thatcher at Fontainebleau in 1984; and the opt-out from monetary union negotiated for the UK by John Major at Maastricht in 1992.
The borderless Schengen Area operates very much like a single state for international travel purposes, with external border controls for travellers entering and exiting the area, and with common visas, but no internal border controls. The UK has not signed up, but neither has Ireland, which maintains a separate travel area with the UK. So Scotland could follow the Irish precedent, thereby avoiding border checks at Gretna Green, and could signal its willingness to fall into line with continental member states as soon as London and Dublin do so.
The UK’s budget rebate repays two thirds of the difference between the UK’s contribution to the EU budget and EU reciprocal payments to the UK. Over the past thirty years it has saved the UK some £70 billion at today’s prices, or roughly £2.3 billion a year. The UK now contributes 10% of the budget, far less than Germany, which contributes 20%, and somewhat less than France and Italy. The rebate, originally secured by strong-arm tactics and regarded ever since by the Tory right and the tabloid press as a symbol of national virility, is deeply resented by other member states, not least because the EU budget is a zero-sum game: the less the UK pays, the more all the rest must pay. There is little chance that Scotland would be able to retain the Thatcher rebate, even if it wanted to. Better, therefore, to offer to give it up as a gesture of goodwill. This is, in effect, the price to be paid for joining the club.
New members of the EU now take on a commitment to join the euro when they have satisfied the conditions for doing so. This is not an insuperable barrier to Scotland’s accession. Sweden has no formal opt-out, but retains its own currency and though still committed in principle to joining the euro, is unlikely to do so any time soon. Most Swedes, like most Britons, want to keep their own currency and central bank. For a while, after the successful launch of the single currency between 1998 and 2000, Swedish opinion shifted from “No, not now” to “Yes, but not now”, but since the financial crash of 2007-8 exposed deep flaws in the design of the euro, dividing the northern “core” of the euro-area from its southern “periphery” and plunging half of Europe into depression, the issue has died. In the more benign global conditions of the early 1990s, Sweden made a full and relatively rapid recovery from its own financial crisis and has weathered the recent storm better than most other European countries. Thus, until the euro-area resolves its crisis, no Swedish government would dream of holding another referendum on whether to join it.
So is a commitment to join the euro at some “appropriate”, but unspecified juncture a token gesture, with no real consequences for Scotland? Not entirely, for it sits uneasily beside the SNP’s current policy of retaining the pound and seeking to form a currency union with the rUK. This might be presented as an interim arrangement, to be superseded one day, if and when Scotland and the rUK jointly decide to give up the pound and embrace the euro, presumably after a referendum in both countries. But what if Scotland votes for independence in 2014 and the rUK subsequently votes to leave the EU? The tension between membership of the EU and protecting Scotland’s ties with the rUK would then become apparent, as the prospect of bureaux de change along the Tweed passed from the realms of fantasy to the horizon of possibility.
More generally, in the hurly burly of the referendum debate, even the formal admission that Scotland might some day switch from one currency union to another gives SNP policy a provisional, makeshift appearance, adding to the irreducible uncertainty that the prospect of secession poses for business and financial interests. (The same applies to the proposal that, after a suitable interval, an independent Scotland should create its own currency. This proposal also carries the further risk of provoking conflict with the EU. It is one thing to retain your historic currency, pending a switch to the euro, but quite another to introduce an entirely new one, in preference to the euro).
An invidious choice?
Until now, the working assumption has been that an independent Scotland and the rUK would both remain in the EU. All Scottish parties, pro- and anti-independence, take it for granted that Scots are committed to Europe or, at least, have no wish to leave it. Bizarrely, this includes the Eurosceptic Scottish Tories, who try to scare voters with the threat that an independent Scotland would be forced out of the EU. But with the rise of Ukip in England and the growing likelihood of an in/out EU referendum in the next Westminster parliament, Scots now have to reckon with the possibility that they might end up there alone. Indeed, the SNP has started urging people to vote for independence in order to stay in the EU.
According to Angus Roxburgh, a former BBC Europe correspondent:
“Scots now face an invidious choice: vote next year for independence (and, it is assumed, membership of the EU) and risk the collapse of links with England if it then votes to leave the EU; or vote to stay in the UK and risk being taken out of the EU anyway, courtesy of voters down south.”
This dilemma, he notes, falls into a familiar pattern in British politics. In 18 general elections since the Second World War, the Conservatives have won a majority in Scotland only once (1955), yet they have formed the government at Westminster nine times. Despite voting consistently for the left, Scotland has been governed by Labour for only 30 years out of 68.
How serious is the danger that if Scotland votes to stay in the UK, it could end up outside the EU? Asked how they would vote if an in/out referendum were held today, the British public is evenly divided. According to a Guardian/ICM poll conducted in mid-May, a majority of 43-41 favours withdrawal, with the rest undecided, and this at a time when Europe is in the doldrums and hardly anyone has a good word to say for it. Moreover, only one voter in ten regards Europe as the most pressing issue facing the country.
The meteoric rise of Ukip as an English nationalist party has spooked the Tories because it threatens to split the right and let Labour back into government, whether alone or in coalition with the Lib Dems, just as thirty years ago the rise of the SDP split the left and handed Mrs Thatcher a landslide victory in 1983. But the root cause of Ukip’s success is less antipathy to the EU – 40% of Ukip voters want to stay in Europe – than general disgruntlement with the political class and the decline of Britain. In this respect, their views are a more extreme version of attitudes held by English voters as a whole. Indeed, while the Ukip threat to the Tories is real, it may have been overstated, for though the Tories have suffered most from defections to Ukip, England’s fourth party has also taken votes from Labour and the Lib Dems.
As an “island-race” that once ruled a global empire which has left its mark on the UK’s constitutional arrangements, foreign policy, military posture, trade links and financial system, Britons have always been reluctant Europeans. However, recent history suggests that when questions of geo-political alignment are seriously debated, British voters have no time for “splendid isolation”. In 1975, only months before the referendum on whether to accept the terms of a cosmetic “renegotiation” conducted by Harold Wilson for reasons of party management, opponents of the “Common Market”, as it was then generally known, were well ahead in the polls. In the event, they were decisively defeated by a majority of 2 to 1.
By calling a national referendum at a time of intractable economic crisis – with recurrent strikes, double-digit inflation, dwindling profits and rising unemployment – the wily Labour leader managed to rout his critics on the left, who shared with the Tory right the illusion that Britain could somehow solve its problems by going it alone as a sovereign power, free from continental entanglements and constraints. David Cameron may be hoping to emulate Wilson’s example. It is, however, salutary to recall that though the Labour government of 1974-9 won this particular battle, it went on to lose the war. Just over three years later, its Herculean efforts to manage industrial conflict, control inflation, restore profitability, boost investment and reduce unemployment on the basis of a social contract with the unions, fell apart in the “Winter of Discontent”. With this disaster, responsibility for tackling the crisis passed to the neo-liberal right, which seized the opportunity to emasculate the unions, dismantle the post-war settlement and establish a “free economy” under the aegis of a strong state.
The crisis we face today is different from that of the 1970s, but no less daunting. Besides recovering from depression and rebalancing our economy, we need to repair the fabric of our society and regenerate our democracy within the framework of a new constitutional settlement that gives greater responsibility and fiscal powers to local authorities, as well as extending and strengthening the powers of devolved national governments. And beyond these shores, the historic nations of the UK should all be actively involved in efforts to reform the EU, helping it to regain popular legitimacy. For the moment, this is a project in search of agencies with the will, strength, patience and skill to see it through in the face of organised resistance, structural bias and institutional inertia. In broad outline, we know what needs to be done. The problem is to work out how to get it done and who is going to do it. Nevertheless, in thinking about the coming spate of parliamentary elections and national referendums – in Scotland, the UK and the EU – we should do well to keep both project and problem in mind.