The Wrong Referendum?

Although I have serious reservations about the EU, I will vote Remain in the forthcoming referendum. I detest Cameron, Osborne and their cronies, but Johnson, IDS, Gove and Farage are at least as bad in my view. I cannot think of any prominent member of the Leave campaign for whom I have any respect; all the political leaders I respect are in the Remain camp.

I believe that, while some of the scare stories emanating from the Tory Remain campaign are greatly exaggerated, they are not entirely false, and that the UK economy will suffer following a Brexit. If the Tories remain in power they will use any economic downturn as an excuse to impose even more of their austerity, which always seems to make the richest people even richer. I also believe that Scotland will be more badly affected than England, partly because Scotland does better in terms of EU funding. It is likely that, without the EU to restrain them, a Tory government will repeal the Human Rights Act, and will reduce workers’ rights still further.

I have found the Leave campaign to be deeply distasteful because of its emphasis on immigration; if it wins, it will be because it has successfully appealed to the xenophobia and downright racism which underlies much of the British and English versions of nationalism. It may even have contributed, albeit unintentionally, to the brutal murder of Jo Cox. The fact that far right organisations such as Britain First support Leave is in itself a good reason for voting Remain.

As far as Scotland is concerned, I believe that the best possible outcome of the referendum would be a Leave vote which leads to a second independence referendum and Scottish independence, while the the worst possible outcome would be a Leave vote which does not lead to Scottish independence. I will not vote Leave in the hope of a second independence referendum being triggered for two reasons. Firstly, to argue for another referendum, we need not only a UK vote for Leave but also a clear majority in Scotland for Remain. Secondly, I think it it is possible that the UK government will either block an independence referendum, arguing that constitutional matters are reserved to Westminster, or refuse to recognise the result if it is not to their liking.

I am convinced that Cameron blundered with the Scottish referendum, in that he only signed the Edinburgh Agreement because he was confident that Scotland would vote to remain in the UK by such a margin that the independence movement and the SNP would suffer a setback that they would take many years to recover from. Arguably he has blundered again, by the allowing the EU referendum to take place to try to settle differences within the Tory party and see off competition from UKIP, but perhaps he felt that he had no alternative. However, I believe that he made a serious tactical error (unless he secretly wants a Brexit) in not insisting on a second question on membership of the European Economic Area (EEA) following a Brexit. This has allowed a thoroughly dishonest Leave campaign which means that those who vote Leave will have voted for a proverbial pig in a poke, because there has not been nearly enough discussion of what will really happen after a Brexit. A question on the ballot paper on EEA membership would forced that discussion.

One possibility might be for the UK to rejoin the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), and to follow the Norwegian model. (Given the UK’s record within the EU, and the fact that the UK’s population is well over four times that of all four current EFTA members combined, it is far from certain that EFTA would allow the UK to join and dominate it.) Along with fellow EFTA members Iceland and Lichtenstein, Norway has access to the European single market through the EEA, but in return it has to pay nearly as much to the EU as it would as a full member of the EU, without receiving anything back in the form of CAP payments or EU grants. Norway has to abide by many of the EU’s laws and regulations, but has little say in setting these. Most crucially in view of the Leave campaign’s emphasis on immigration, Norway is bound to allow free movement of workers within the EEA; it cannot restrict immigration from EU member states.

A second possibility would be to copy Switzerland, which is a member of EFTA but not of the EEA; instead, it has negotiated access to the single market through a series of bilateral agreements. Perhaps this is what the Leave campaign has in mind when they recently announced that they were confident that the UK could negotiate trade deals with Europe by 2020; EFTA membership would presumably not be essential for this. However, there is no reason to expect that the EU will offer the UK acceptable terms. There is concern among EU leaders that a ‘successful’ Brexit could lead to other EU member states following suit, and possibly even to the disintegration of the EU. Whether or not these concerns are justified, it would appear to be in the EU’s interest either to deny the UK any privileged access to the European single market, or to extract such a price for it that other EU countries will not be encouraged to follow the UK’s example.

I suspect that many who vote Leave will do so under a vague impression that a post-Brexit UK will be able to have its cake and eat it, by not having to make payments to the EU or obey EU law, but somehow still retaining access to the single market or else avoiding the damage to the economy that would result from being excluded from it. Had they been forced, by a second question on the ballot paper, to consider more fully the question of EEA membership, they might have been less inclined to vote Leave.

This referendum is not the end of the story. If Remain wins (as, on balance, I hope it does), it will only be by a narrow margin. (If the Scottish vote tips the balance in favour of Remain, I shall relish the frustration of the English nationalist component of the support for Brexit.) The Euro-sceptics amongst the Tories will not accept the verdict, but will continue attacking Cameron. With luck, the Tory party will split, or suffer enough defections to UKIP to destroy its majority in the Commons. Perhaps, one way or another, there will be a General Election. If Leave wins, the fighting within the Tory party may well continue, with the pro-European Tories arguing for EEA membership and the Euro-sceptics wanting as little to do with Europe as possible.

The sad thing about all this is that if fewer people had let themselves be intimidated by Project Fear or duped by Brown’s infamous Vow, we in Scotland would have been largely unaffected by all this. I would argue that, in the event of the UK voting for a Brexit, all supporters of Scottish independence should campaign for another independence referendum. It is likely that the EU will want to retain Scotland as part of the EU to limit the adverse consequences of a Brexit, by giving the message that if a country leaves the UK that it might just break up. In any case, an expansionist organisation such as the EU will want to give up as little territory as possible. The UK will be trying to negotiate the best possible deal with the EU, and the EU could use this to put pressure on the UK government to allow an independence referendum, while promising that an independent Scotland could inherit the UK’s unwanted EU membership. This could be our best chance, and I would suggest that even those who would like to see Scotland as an independent country outside the EU should consider voting Remain. After all, an EU member state does not need permission from the EU to hold a referendum on EU membership, and member states have a right to leave the EU by giving two years’ notice. It would be much easier for an independent Scotland to leave the EU than it is for Scotland to leave the UK.

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