Ian Swanson: Only fools rush in where Nicola fears to tread
SCOTTISH voters could be going to the polls not once but twice this summer. If David Cameron manages soon to strike a deal he's happy with over Britain's future in Europe he wants to call his promised in-out referendum on the European Union in June or July '“ just weeks after the Scottish Parliament elections.
The SNP has already forced the UK government to agree it will not hold the European vote on the same day as the Holyrood poll at the beginning of May.
But if the EU question is to be decided so soon afterwards, there’s still a serious danger the Scottish elections will be overshadowed by the widespread coverage bound to be given to the EU debate.
And it would also be tricky for the political parties trying to work together on the issue of EU membership while battling it out over seats at Holyrood.
Nicola Sturgeon has set out another reason why she does not want a June referendum. She argues such an early trip to the polls means there would not be enough time to persuade people why it matters so much that the UK remains in Europe.
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She says: “I am increasingly concerned by reports that the EU referendum could be held as early as June if there is an agreement struck at the European Council in February.
“If that is the case it would leave barely four months, including the period of the Scottish election, for the public to fully engage and for the arguments about EU membership to be heard fully.”
The First Minister is, of course, used to very long drawn-out referendum campaigns. “In the Scottish referendum, the two-year debate provided for a vigorous campaign and genuine public engagement, even the AV [Alternative Vote] referendum involved a year of public debate.”
There is probably little appetite for a prelude to the EU vote as prolonged as that to the one on independence. But Ms Sturgeon surely has a point that a dash to the polls does not allow an appropriate chance for people to think carefully before such a big decision.
The referendum, after all, began as an attempt to appease anti-European elements in the Conservative party rather than anything else.
If it is now to be a proper democratic exercise to decide the country’s future relationship with our near neighbours then people must be given time to reflect on the issues seriously and give due consideration to the pros and cons.
Ms Sturgeon says she is “reasonably confident” Scotland will vote to stay in Europe and six months ago she would have said the same about the UK, but now she is feeling less confident as time goes by. “The polls are starting to look less than comfortable,” she adds.
“If you think about the Scottish referendum, the two campaigns started quite far apart and ended up fairly close. Here, the two campaigns are starting much closer – and my fear is that if the In campaign runs the same campaign as No in the Scottish referendum, they could find themselves overtaken.”
She says she will be campaigning for Scotland – and the UK – to stay in the EU but wants the decision to be an informed one after “a proper public debate”. She warns by focusing on “the narrow issues of the renegotiation” the UK government risks “selling the pass” on the big economic and social arguments for staying in.
The Prime Minister might do well to listen to a woman who may not have won a referendum but knows a thing or two about turning round opinion.