This article appears in the latest issue of the British Politics Review, published by Norway’s British Politics Society, in a special issue on Euroscepticism in the UK.
You wait for ages, and then suddenly two come along at once. What’s true of London buses also applies to constitutional referendums in the UK. Despite its apparent enthusiasm, the Labour UK government in office between 1997 and 2010 made only limited use of the referendum – in Scotland and Wales for devolution in 1997, in the North East of England for regional government in 2004, and in various localities for having elected mayors. Since 2010, there has been a mad flurry of referendum activity. The first was in Wales in March 2011, which approved increased law-making powers for the National Assembly for Wales by nearly two to one. That was followed by one on the Alternative Vote (AV) system for UK Parliamentary elections in May 2011, rejected by more than two to one. Two more are looming – that on Scottish independence in September 2014, and another about the European Union proposed by Conservatives and under consideration in Parliament for 2017. There are some odd parallels between the two, and some important interactions between them too.
The Welsh powers and AV referendums were both slightly awkward exercises in constitutional deliberation. The Welsh referendum was legislated for by Labour, in the Government of Wales Act 2006, which created two systems for defining the law-making powers of the National Assembly. The differences between them were real and significant, but not easy to explain to the general public – one was a system of conferring legislative power on the Assembly incrementally, the other a grant of wide legislative powers affecting the same 20 subject areas. The real reason for holding the referendum was the impact of the Westminster Coalition, and the poll was held at the first practicable date. While advocates of a Yes vote include politicians from all parties, the biggest problem was the lack of an official No campaign – and with that, the lack of access to referendum broadcasts on radio and TV.
The AV referendum was a commitment in the Coalition’s Programme for Government, and so key to the deal that enable the Conservative-Liberal Democrat government to take office. It was more successfully managed but again the issue failed to engage the public – or indeed many supporters of electoral reform – and the clear defeat for the proposed system embittered relations between the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties.
Both those referendums were about rather technical issues. That is not true of either the Scottish independence or EU referendums. Both of these raise first-order constitutional questions, and the outcome of each is likely to have profound long-term effects no matter which way it goes. A UK without Scotland – or an EU without the UK – will both be very different entities. Either change will trigger extensive alterations in relations between close geographical neighbours, of considerable complexity. And both are triggering ‘debates’ which are largely based on conjecture about what the outcome might be, rather than realistic understandings of what can happen given legal, institutional and economic constraints and the interests of other actors, rather than just parties’ wish-lists.
There are some curious similarities between the two sets of debates. While some (in the Conservatives and UKIP) have sought an ‘in or out’ referendum on the EU, the Conservatives’ official position is to seek to renegotiate a looser relationship with the EU while remaining an EU member. What this might mean is unclear. For many on the right, it seems to mean a major loosening of UK-EU relations to turn the relationship into a free-trade one, with the UK keeping out of any schemes for political or economic union (let alone a single currency or banking union). However, some leaks and the first publications from the UK Government’s ‘audit’ of the benefits and costs of EU membership both suggest a fairly limited renegotiation of detailed matters such as the application of the Working Time Directive to doctors, The aspiration of the British right still appears to a much looser relationship has been rejected by numerous EU politicians, including French President Hollande and Council President van Rompuy, in such forthright terms that even pragmatic Eurosceptics like Foreign Secretary William Hague seem reluctant to pursue it.
The SNP’s proposals for independence will remain unclear until the Scottish Government publishes its ‘independence prospectus’ in the autumn (probably November). However, the clear indications are that independence for Scotland will be ‘independence lite’. They envisage that an independent Scotland would be party to a range of ongoing alliances with the remainder of UK (rUK) and the wider world. It would be (or remain) a member of the EU and NATO. It would continue to use the pound sterling through a monetary union. It would also participate in a ‘social union’ with rUK (regarding personal movement and reciprocal use of health and social security systems), an ‘energy union’ (as energy supply networks pay no regard to the Scotland-England border), and a number of other relationships. A cynic might ask how such a Scotland would be different to its present relationship with UK – the main differences being fiscal but not monetary autonomy, control of North Sea oil and gas, and the removal of nuclear weapons. In effect, having been denied a ‘renegotiate a looser union’ option in the referendum debate – the ‘devo max’ option that the SNP sought to have included in the referendum campaign, but which was resisted by the UK Government – the Scottish Government has more or less redefined ‘independence’ as that sort of looser union.
The big question in each case is whether the other party to the negotiations might agree to it. In the case of the UK and the EU, there have been clear indications from a variety of figures that a large-scale renegotiation would not be acceptable. Whatever the UK Government may say to its domestic audience, it will get relatively limited concessions from its partners or the EU institutions. In the Scottish case, the UK Government has said it will not ‘pre-negotiate’ the terms of independence. However, it has embarked on a referendum-related ‘Scotland Analysis’ programme which has led to a number of papers already published (and more to come) examining aspects of independence like international law or currency issues, and indicating the problems arising from independence. SNP ministers have dubbed this ‘Project Fear’, which may indicate how effective it is being.
There are connections between the two debates as well as parallels between them. One of the strongest cards in the SNP’s hand has been to point to differences between Scotland and England (or the UK). The distinctive character of ‘Scottish values’ has been key to this. Such values embrace supposed support for the EU, as well as for the welfare state – so contrast with supposed English hostility to both. In reality, there appear to be only slight differences in public attitudes to such matters. This framing of the debate is about political rhetoric much more than substance. The commitment to ongoing membership of the EU is therefore a way for the SNP both to differentiate their vision from that of the Conservatives (if not other UK-wide parties), and also to use uncertainties about the EU referendum as a way of persuading uncommitted voters to support independence. The pitch becomes ‘to stay in Europe, vote to leave the UK’. This line of argument has parallels in other aspects of the Yes campaign’s position – for example, to urge people to vote for independence to preserve the welfare state from the depredations of the UK Coalition’s welfare reform programme.
While EU issues are prominent in the Scottish referendum, Scottish ones have been missing from the EU one. Indeed, Conservative proposals for an EU referendum have been remarkably constitutionally ill-considered. The bill proposed by James Wharton MP with support from the Conservative Party leadership rides roughshod over the principle that one Parliament cannot bind another (as it provides for holding a referendum in 2017, after the next UK election), and delegates a vast swathe of powers to ministers to administer the holding of the poll, contrary to the principle of non-delegation. It also disregards the role of the Electoral Commission in regulating the poll or advising on the wording and ‘intelligibility’ question, though it gives the Commission a role in advising the ministers about the referendum. The role of the Electoral Commission in regulating the poll, and advising on the question, were both UK requirements for agreeing to confer powers on the Scottish Parliament to hold an independence referendum – so double standards have been applied here.
At a deeper level, the idea of a UK leaving the EU is based on the UK in its essentials remaining what the UK presently is. But even with a vote against independence, the UK is likely to look very different in 2020 than it does today – with much greater fiscal autonomy for Scotland and perhaps Wales and Northern Ireland, some extension of devolved powers, increased focus on city and city-region government within England, and a reconfiguring at the centre to make England’s voice more pronounced. (These are all processes that are underway, or to which there are political commitments in the event of a Scottish No vote.) That will require a different, more reflective form of statecraft to manage – inside or outside the EU.
Scottish independence has some attractions for the Conservatives. It would strengthen the chances of the Conservatives holding power at Westminster, in particular. However, the risk would be that rUK would count for much less on the wider world stage. A UK outside the EU without Scotland would be much less impressive than one with it – for example, it would probably not be able to maintain the Trident nuclear deterrent without the Clyde bases, its population would make it a peer of Poland and Spain rather than France or Italy, and sooner or later its permanent membership of the UN Security Council would probably come into question.
Even if there is a No vote in 2014, 2017 could change the landscape again. A majority vote against the EU in England but not in Scotland in 2017 would reopen a range of questions about Scotland’s relations with the UK. Any belief that these were finally settled in 2014 would be wrong. The commitment to an EU referendum opens up a wide range of questions about the future of the UK, and so introduces a ‘second round’ to the Scottish independence debate if there is a No vote. (See also my piece for the Spectator‘s Coffee House blog HERE.) It is far from clear whether the advocates of an EU referendum have thought about such potential ramifications.
As the UK moves toward a procession of first-order referendums, the problems and effects of each on the other multiply. All these uncertainties are likely themselves to have an effect. The question is: are British politicians good enough at statecraft to preserve their state?