Europe is too important for game playing

davidgowDavid Gow, former European Business Editor of The Guardian and a contributor to the 1975 Red Paper on Scotland, says the path for Labour on Europe is clear.


Last week, in Edinburgh’s Corn Exchange, Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister-in-waiting, over-reached herself – not for the first time.

Before she’s even been sworn into office, she insisted that Scotland (and Wales and Northern Ireland) should have a veto on #brexit even if the whole of the UK, that is predominantly England, voted to quit the EU. (“each of the four constituent nations …would have to vote to do so…”).

Her argument rested on one more or less certain piece of evidence: Scots voters would in all probability, polls suggest, vote No to #brexit and opt to stay in the EU. A YouGov poll for The Times, published on October 31, indeed showed a 47-33% pro-EU vote in Scotland in any referendum – versus a 45-35% anti-EU vote in England and Wales.

Polling carried out for the Future of the UK and Scotland project last year found a similar split north and south of the border. And on October 23 The Times drew on research at Durham/East Anglia universities showing only four out of 59 Westminster constituencies in Scotland would vote for #brexit. Survation found earlier this year a 49-35% pro-EU trend. Ipsos Mori found a 53-34% pro-EU majority among Scots in February 2013 when 61% of those polled said an independent Scotland should be an EU member.

But sentiment can swiftly and radically change – as votes on this issue have shown on an all-UK basis. What’s more, Scots did, willy nilly, vote for one UKIP MEP in May. Ms Sturgeon’s démarche – a proposed amendment to any Commons bill for an EU referendum – rested, above all, on a highly questionable assumption. This is: “An in/out referendum on EU membership in 2017 now seems inevitable – almost regardless of who wins the general election next May.”

This is untrue. The LibDems recently scuppered a Tory backbench bill to commit to a referendum before the May 7 general election in 2015. More pertinently for us, Ed Miliband has consistently ruled a referendum out, rejecting moves within the shadow cabinet to “pre-commit” Labour. He has rightly argued that a referendum campaign would take up huge and valuable amounts of time that would be better spent on delivering us from dead-end austerity politics and combating inequality.

He should stick to his guns. As a passionate pro-European for half a century, I believe it’s in Britain’s and Scotland’s elemental interest to be wholly engaged in the EU and to be at the forefront of concerted drives to reconnect with its 500m citizens by delivering fairness, employment, innovation, by investing in education and skills, by fighting racism and xenophobia, by enabling Europe to compete on an equal footing with the emerging economies rather than be left behind to decline. The UK needs to end its growing isolation, mend fences wilfully destroyed by Cameron and Osborne et al and work with genuine allies to reform the EU.

Sturgeon’s ploy is twofold: to reintroduce independence via the referendum veto and – as in the “austerity union” slur – paint Labour into a corner as kowtowing to Ukip and failing to fight for Scotland’s interests. She wrongly argues that the UK is not a unitary state when it is – like Bonapartist France and federal Germany (where, incidentally, none of the 16 Länder has a veto of the kind she is proposing). What she and her party should be doing is working with others to ensure that this unnecessary referendum, designed to save the ever more Eurosceptic Conservatives from outright Faragisme, never takes place. If that means – as she has admitted – campaigning on the same platform as Tories like Ken Clarke so be it.

In recent days, we have witnessed the Conservative leadership tacking disgracefully to the racist right over migration and freedom of movement of labour, one of the four pillars of the EU and its single market. Countries that were once the UK’s closest allies are disgusted. Labour must reiterate that it will have no truck with this politics.

Europe may not figure prominently in the in-trays of the declared candidates to be leader and deputy leader of Scottish Labour but it is a core issue for the country’s future. We need these candidates to state clearly where they stand on the “other” referendum and the future of the EU as a whole. Talk of jobs, fairness, social justice is meaningless without that European perspective.

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