Andrew Smith: Why The Yes Campaign Should Support An EU Referendum

Since David Cameron announced an EU referendum for 2017 the response from most of the left has been to criticise him for caving-in to an undesirable coalition of right wing backbenchers and UKIP voters. Twitter has been as animated as ever, with activists on both sides of the Scottish debate seeming to agree that Cameron has made a mistake. The SNP has gone further, with Angus Robertson saying:

Only a Yes vote in 2014 can secure Scotland’s successful future as an independent country and a guaranteed member of the EU.”

Better Together’s initial response was to issue a politically neutral statement that downplayed their divisions on the issue. In contrast Yes Scotland has claimed: “One of the central pillars of the No campaign’s case, is now crumbling, with the anti-independence parties split on our EU future.” Since then they have supported the SNP’s line, and in doing so appear to have ruled out supporting a vote on Scotland’s EU membership. However, as a supporter of Scottish independence I think that such a referendum should be welcomed. I also believe that in the event of a YES vote in 2014 the Scottish Government should commit to holding a referendum on Scotland’s EU membership in 2017.

The main reason is simple: there’s substantial demand for it. The latest YouGov poll found that 51% of Scots agree that “Britain should renegotiate our relationship with Europe to get the best deal we can, and then hold a referendum on whether to approve the new relationship or leave totally.” The same poll finds 55% of Scots agreeing that David Cameron is right to seek a new relationship with our European neighbours. These numbers are hardly unique: another poll from the same organisation suggested 59% of Scots backed a poll.

The second reason to support a vote is that Scotland’s relationship with the EU is likely to change post-independence. If one thing has become clear from the last few months it’s that Scotland will need to negotiate its EU membership. Negotiations will probably take place from within the EU with the government estimating they’ll be over by 2016. However, the terms agreed will be unique to Scotland, and so they should be ratified, or rejected, by the Scottish electorate.

The third, and final, reason to support a referendum is because it would be consistent. What better way for an independent Scotland to establish itself on the world stage than to let its electorate make a major decision about Scotland’s relationship with the world? Not only would this be a sign that politicians trust the people, it would also finally put to rest one of the big issues that has hung around British politics for decades. Surely if the deal the Scottish Government negotiates is bad and a majority of Scots want to leave then that’s what should happen?

Why should the Scottish Government be willing to let Scots vote on their relationship with the rest of the UK but not the rest of Europe? The SNP’s response has been that they support EU membership so they don’t support a referendum. However, this point is a bit disingenuous when you consider how much energy was spent on lobbying unionist parties to support a vote on Scottish independence. Were the unionists right to ignore public opinion in that instance? Similarly, Nicola Sturgeon’s argument that an EU referendum will lead to uncertainty among the business community is exactly the same charge that Better Together are making against the SNP in relation to 2014.

There’s no reason to believe that a vote on the EU would result in a new era of Scottish isolationism. While there is demand for a referendum there is also generally higher support for the EU in Scotland than across the rest of the UK. This is supported by YouGov, whose latest report found only 36% of Scots supporting withdrawal. One outcome of an EU vote in an independent Scotland could be to act as a unifying point after a potentially divisive referendum. All major political parties would probably campaign together for a YES vote, but more importantly it would allow the electorate to engage in a serious debate about the kind of Europe they want and Scotland’s role in it.

Andrew Smith
Author and Communications Professional

Print Friendly

There are 15 comments

  1. David Myers

    To be fair, since the proposed referendum is due to happen in 2017, that is three years after the independence referendum. As such, it’s more appropriate to consider our future relationship with the EU after the referendum is out of the way. Why fight on two fronts? Cameron’s position is vague at best, so it makes no sense for the to commit to a position on a future referendum when we don’t know if it will even affect Scotland, and what the terms of the referendum are to be.

    1. Andrew Smith

      Thanks for the feedback David.

      What I’m proposing is that the Scottish Government should support a referendum on Scotland’s relationship with the EU post-independence, this would be distinct from the vote affecting the UK.

      The reason is that by 2017 an independent Scotland should have finished negotiations and entered into it’s own unique relationship with the EU, which should be put to the electorate. The 2017 date could be earlier o later, that’s not the important part. I don’t think Yes Scotland should be pro-Europe as such, but I think they should support the right of Scottish people to be consulted on determining independent Scotland’s relationship with Europe, regardless of what Westminster does.

      1. Smokeball

        I agree with you Andrew. I feel at the moment that “A vote for Scottish independence is a vote for the EU” I want independence for Scotland but I am an EU sceptic. If a Scottish referendum produces a Yes to EU membership, so be it, but I don’t like the assumption that we all love the EU.

  2. Peter A Bell

    I have no objections in principle to Scotland having a referendum on EU membership AFTER independence when the vote will actually mean something. It is not the idea of an EU referendum that I find objectionable but the brazen hypocrisy that is exposed by Cameron’s plans.

    I do, however, have severe reservations about the proposed EU referendum on other grounds. Such as the fact that it is futile and pointless; motivated by base considerations of party political advantage rather than any purpose to improve either the EU or the UK’s relationship with the rest of Europe; and based on a false prospectus regarding what might be achievable in terms of “renegotiation” of that relationship;

    1. Andrew Smith

      Thanks for the feedback Peter

      Personally I support the UK referendum too, I think Cameron has done the right thing, albeit very much for the wrong reasons. If a majority want to leave the EU (which I don’t believe is the case) then that’s what should happen.

      What I don’t support is the Scottish Government ruling out a future EU referendum despite accepting they will need to negotiate a new relationship for post-indi Scotland and the EU.

      1. Peter A Bell

        The phrase “new relationship” seems to be picked up from Cameron’s rhetoric rather than anything the Scottish Government has said on the matter. The Scottish Government’s consistent position has been that Scotland will continue to be a member of the EU and that while some relatively minor details will be subject to negotiation the fundamental relationship will remain unaltered. Looking at the matter dispassionately, which few unionist or Eurosceptics seem able to do, this is the position that follows from the “two successor state” option which is, by a massive margin, the most likely to be adopted by the EU. The key word here is continuity.
        The Scottish Government cannot “rule out” a future EU referendum for the simple reason that it cannot make any decision in such matters that would be binding on future governments. The Scottish National Party, on the other hand, is perfectly entitled to adopt a policy of not being in favour of such a referendum. In fact, it is sensible for them to do so. For reasons which become clear when we examine the deficiencies in Cameron’s proposal for a referendum.
        Anybody who proposes a referendum on withdrawal from the EU MUST be prepared to state what the alternative is. And they must make a clear and persuasive case for that alternative. It would be politically impossible for the SNP to maintain its “Independence in Europe” line while simultaneously advocating a referendum and being required to spell out a viable alternative. The party cannot sensibly talk up the advantages of EU membership out of one side of its mouth while talking up the benefits of some other arrangement out of the other side.

        1. Andrew Smith

          The reason it would be a new relationship in Scotland’s case is because it would be a new independent nationstate with new relationships. The government position is to stay in the EU (as it would be with any mainstream Scottish party) and I don’t foresee Scots voting to leave if the option was put. Even assuming Scotland’s relationships are largely unchanged from the ones it has as a component part of the UK that doesn’t alter the fact that the EU is changing (and will potentially be very different by 2016) and there is a significant public demand for a vote on it.

          I should have said the SNP has ruled out a referendum. They could certainly make it known that they would support allowing Scots to choose Scotland’s relationship with the EU (and even whether there is any desire to leave). In the event of a referendum the SNP wouldn’t need to talk up an alternative arrangement, their objective would presumably be to attain public consent and ratification for their own policy and the results of their negotiations (which they say will be over in time for 2016.)

          1. Peter A Bell

            You seem to be saying in that first paragraph that Scotland would have a new relationship with the EU because its relationship with the EU would be new. Logically immaculate in its own circular terms. But hardly convincing in a wider context.
            After independence Scotland’s relationship with the EU will not change in any significant practical sense. By “significant” I mean things that people will actually notice as they go about their daily lives. Continuity is the imperative for both the EU and Scotland. Which is, incidentally, why the SNP cannot be as radical as some would wish it to be when it comes to talking about the way Scotland will look after independence. Certainly, Scotland’s representation in the European Parliament will increase. And we will deal directly with other governments and with the institutions of the EU. But will the “man in the street” be immediately impacted by such things in any discernible way? Of course not!
            As to the EU changing, that’s going to happen anyway. One of my major criticisms of the UK Government has been its failure to properly engage with the EU so as to more effectively shape the way in which it develops. I reckon Scotland could do considerably better in this regard.
            The SNP is not against the people of Scotland being allowed to have a say on the EU. There is a very great difference between not proposing a referendum and being opposed to a referendum. In an independent Scotland a referendum would have to be won by those that want it. Just as the independence referendum was won. Assuming such a referendum is secured, the SNP and other parties would have to take an official position. This is a hypothetical situation, so we can’t say with certainty what the SNP’s position would be. But I think it fairly safe to assume that the party would be campaigning in favour of continued EU membership.
            Having said all this, being opposed to the holding of a referendum can be a perfectly valid position. It very much depends on the issue in question. Some issues just aren’t amenable to a simple Yes/No decision. And a referendum cannot be legitimate unless there are two clear options available for which a case can be made. Referendums are not the acme of democratic expression that many assume them to be.

          2. Andrew Smith

            Scotland’s current relationship with the EU has never been put to the electorate, let alone any new one. If nothing substantial changes and the electorate are happy then those who support the EU will win comfortably.

            On the point of whether Scotland would work better with the EU than Britain, I tend to agree with you, although if Cameron can’t negotiate from a position of strength representing the UK then some would suggest Alex Salmond would find it much harder. Regardless, it is changing and will continue to do so, it depends on how important we view public consent to be.

            The SNP is against a referendum insofar as they have critisised the UK government for calling one. The EU is one of very few big issues of which there has been a constant support for a referendum on, and I can’t think of a better thing for an independent Scotland to put to the verdict of the people.

            Agreed that opposition to any referendum can be a totally valid position, I just disagree with it. I would have thought that an alternative would be quite clear, departure from the EU and all that is entails. The negative consequences would be argued against by those who support the EU and any supposedly positive outcomes would be argued for by those opposed (as will be the case of the rest of the UK).

          3. Peter A Bell

            Scotland’s current relationship can only be put to the electorate if and when there is a viable alternative. Notwithstanding your insistence that this alternative is “quite clear” nobody has ever been able to set it out in anything like the necessary detail.
            Cameron isn’t negotiating from a position of strength. The things he wants to opt out of, such as the social charter, simply aren’t up for negotiation. And things like the ECHR have nothing to do with the EU. The only way the UK could opt out of that would be to get towed to some place just off the coast of South America.
            The things that Scotland would have to negotiate are trivial by comparison. I can’t think of a single thing that might be seriously problematic. One “expert” quipped that the whole thing could be done and dusted in 24 hours. What I am saying is that the two sets of negotiations are about as different as can be. Scotland would be seeking to fit in with the current set-up. Cameron imagines he can change the entire EU under the threat of the UK quitting. Or force the EU to make concessions that are totally incompatible with EU membership. In short, the man’s an idiot.
            What will happen is that some deal will be cobbled together so that Cameron can pretend he’s won concessions. Only further down the line will it come to light that he has paid a heavy price for this deal. Under these circumstances, the SNP is fully justified in opposing the referendum.
            I think I have fully explained the reasons why the SNP will not propose a referendum on EU membership after independence. (Something that used to be SNP policy in different times.) There really is no point in discussing it as it simply isn’t going to happen.

          4. Andrew Smith

            I agree, the debate is circular, and I don’t see any great point is us furthering our dialouge, so I don’t think I will beyond this response.

            Like you I dont expect a vote to happen in Salmond’s/ SNP’s post-independence Scotland, but that doesnt make it the wrong thing to do in principle for the reasons outlined in the article. Likewise I can think of hundreds of things I think Westminster should do but I don’t expect them to. I’m certainly not a legal expert, but I wouldn’t predict massive changes resulting from EU negotiations either. However, the polls I linked to suggest that a large number of Scots want to see massive changes.

            As we both agreed already, Cameron certainly isn’t negotiating from a position of strength. Like you I don’t hold high hopes for him in re-structuring the entire of the EU (the lack of specifics in his speech made that evident.) But in principle, so long as Britain exists I support the right of the British people to choose their relationship with Europe, probably on a generational basis (one vote every 30 years or so, or following a major re-structure) should there be demand for it (substitude that for Scotland or any other nation at will).

            Like you say, the Scottish and Westminster governments have two very different objectives from their negotiations. Westminster wants to make major (unrealistic) changes while Holyrood wants to fit into the current set up and not cause any trouble. The polls I linked to indicate that the Scottish people want to be consulted on this strategy, with some polls suggesting that a majority of Scots actually support Westminster in trying to fundamentally alter their relationship with Europe (no matter how misguided). Others show that most people would probably vote to stay, but they want to be consulted, I agree with them.

          5. Peter A Bell

            I didn’t say that we couldn’t expect to have an EU referendum after independence. I said it was unrealistic to expect the SNP to adopt a policy proposing such a referendum.
            The people choosing their relationship with Europe sounds all very well. But they can only possibly choose between the options available. The option that Cameron seems to have in mind, and the option which many Eurosceptics want, simply doesn’t exist. It is a fantasy.
            Those who want a referendum on Scotland’s membership of the EU are free to campaign for one after independence. I can’t see me supported such a campaign. But neither will I oppose it. Unless, of course, it is as ill-thought as the one Cameron is proposing.

  3. Doug Daniel

    The EU is not a “burning issue” in Scotland. It’s an issue in England because of UKIP, but they don’t even get their deposits back in Scotland, so it’s clear that, regardless of what polls say, it’s not really something that galvanises people’s minds up here. For that reason, I see no point in worrying about holding an EU referendum in Scotland.

    You can’t hold a referendum on something just because the public say they’re in favour of a change when you poll them. For instance, if I polled people on reintroducing the death penalty, I would likely get a (slight?) majority. Does that mean political parties are being undemocratic by not calling for a referendum on the death penalty? No. However, if a political party called the Bring Back Hanging party started coming second in elections, it would be clear that the issue was something that people genuinely wanted to have their say on, rather than just being a preferred option when asked “yes or no?” in a poll.

    The SNP do not believe Scotland needs to come out of the EU, ergo they do not see the need to hold a referendum on it. If a party wants to make it one of their big ticket items, then they are free to do so and try to use the EU elections to force the issue onto the political radar (perhaps the Greens, who I believe are Eurosceptics in the true sense, rather than the Europhobia of the Little Englanders in UKIP and the Tories). But until that happens, there is no need to have a referendum on it. After all, we needed to elect a majority SNP government in order to get a say on independence – why should an EU referendum come about any easier?

    A referendum should be for settling an issue that is dictating people’s voting habits. The AV referendum should be a warning to us all of the folly of holding a referendum about an issue the public doesn’t really give a toss about in reality. Personally, I support England having a referendum on the issue, since there’s clearly a desire (whipped up by the media’s stories of bureaucracy and immigrants, as well as that bizarre fundamental English distrust of “the French” and “the Germans”) to get out of the EU. But that Scotland would have to go along for the ride if we vote “no” in 2014 is exactly the kind of thing that makes me want out of the UK.

    (Of course, if we DO vote “no” in 2014, then we basically deserve everything Tory Little Englanders throw at us…)


    Hi Andrew, interesting piece but I disagree. How many EU countries have had a referendum on EU membership following their accession? I can name one – and funnily enough it’s the UK. Do we propose to have a referendum every so often to make sure people of all ages have been asked? I don’t think that’s a viable argument. Let’s leave the euro-doubting and europhobia to those who do it best – south of the border. Scotland elected a pro-Europe party with a pro-Europe policy and I’m comfortable with that. If the people of Scotland wanted so badly out of Europe there’s one party they would vote for, and never, at any point, have the people of Scotland even stepped in that direction, for any election. I’m proud of our Govt for taking a bold stance on Europe which might not reflect the polls but frankly the polls can say what they like – or are we saying our agenda should be driven by polls? Politics must drive public opinion not the other way round. That’s why Cameron is weak – he is trying to come across as a European reformer and a eurosceptic at the same time. He can’t have it both ways.

    1. Andrew Smith

      Hi Toni

      Thanks for your feedback and your thoughtful response. I think the issue with the EU is that it is so far removed from the EU that people voted for in the 1970s and polling has consistently shown not just a demand for a vote but also for reform. I’m instinctively pro EU, but I don’t think that ‘our side’ has ever been particularly good at engaging ‘the man in the street’ on the advantages of it, which is probably one of the reasons why so many would like to reform it or vote on it. It is one of the issues where the Scottish Parliament is not reflective of public sentiment.

      I don’t think that Europe should be seen as a party political issue. Like support for Scottish independence, support for Europe varies across parties and is rarely the most important individual issue. None of the Eurosceptic people I know would ever dream of voting UKIP. I agree that ideally politics should drive public opinion, but on Europe it hasn’t for a long time. If we were confident of Europe staying the same for the next 5 years it would be different, but we can’t be, there will be big changes and so the public should have the chance to have their say.

Post Your Thoughts