Ian Swanson: UK’s European agenda plays into SNP’s hands

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IT may not have the same ring about it as St Andrew’s Day or Burns Night, but today is Europe Day – and in its own way it could prove just as significant in next year’s independence referendum.

Pro-independence activists were due to celebrate the occasion in 
St Andrew Square with “Yes” placards in different European languages, a reminder that Scotland has close links not just with the rest of the United Kingdom but also with the other member states of the European Union.

The number of Scottish pupils 
studying foreign languages at school may have dropped dramatically in recent years, but historically and politically Europe remains important.

Opinion polls regularly show Scots more in favour of the European Union than voters south of the Border. One survey earlier this year found that while opinion in the rest of the UK was split evenly between staying in or pulling out, the view in Scotland was two-to-one for remaining in Europe.

It could be argued that a long history of closer involvement with continental Europe over the centuries shows Scotland “gets” the importance of good relations with the rest of Europe in a way England never quite has.

And the surge of support for the anti-EU UK Independence Party in last week’s English local elections – taking almost a quarter of the total vote – only serves to underline the point. UKIP has never made any kind of breakthrough in Scotland, polling just 0.7 per cent of the votes in the last Westminster elections here. Yet, as yesterday’s Queen’s Speech demonstrates, the UK coalition now seems to be moving firmly to the right on issues such as immigration in a bid to win back voters who are drifting off to Nigel Farage.

It all plays straight into Alex Salmond’s hands. He can reasonably point to the new agenda in England as evidence of two very different political cultures north and south of the Border.

Mr Salmond found himself on the back foot earlier this year when Nicola Sturgeon, in her role as Minister for Independence, revealed the Scottish Government had not, after all, sought legal advice on whether or not a 
go-it-alone Scotland would automatically remain a member of the EU.

But now the situation has taken a twist. With David Cameron’s promise of an in/out referendum in 2017 if the Tories win the 2015 Westminster election, the SNP can now argue that Scotland’s membership of the EU is put at greater risk by a No vote.

One leading Yes campaigner says it’s a mistake to see anti-EU sentiment as the preserve of a right-wing fringe. He cites former Tory chancellor Nigel Lawson’s announcement this week that he will vote for withdrawal on the grounds that any renegotiation of the UK’s terms of membership will secure only “piffling” concessions. “I think we’ll see a lot more mainstream Conservatives calling for withdrawal.”

Commentator Peter Kellner has argued that if the Tories win in 2015, renegotiate the UK’s terms and call a referendum, the status quo is likely to be upheld. He says that whether Mr Cameron’s concessions were piffling or not, he would present the result as having secured Britain’s vital interests. And with all the main political parties arguing to stay in the EU, the majority of voters would back continued membership.

Nevertheless, in the meantime, a Tory government pursuing an anti-immigration agenda and offering the opportunity to leave Europe risks looking more isolationist than a 
“separatist” Scotland.