Cameron’s EU speech presents opportunities and challenges for the nationalists

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  By David Torrance

Big political speeches can be misremembered. Mrs Thatcher’s 1988 appearance at the College of Europe in Bruges, for example, is cited to this day as an anti-European rant. In fact it was an orthodox restatement of the UK’s support for the European project – after all it was the Iron Lady who supported the Single European Act of 1985.

  By David Torrance

Big political speeches can be misremembered. Mrs Thatcher’s 1988 appearance at the College of Europe in Bruges, for example, is cited to this day as an anti-European rant. In fact it was an orthodox restatement of the UK’s support for the European project – after all it was the Iron Lady who supported the Single European Act of 1985.

Crucially, however, Bernard Ingham – the Alastair Campbell of his day – highlighted one particular paragraph to journalists, Thatcher’s assertion that “we have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them re-imposed at a European level”, and that’s virtually all anyone remembers from a relatively unimportant speech.

How David Cameron’s “Bloomberg speech” comes to be remembered, of course, very much depends upon an outcome possibly several years’ hence. Unlike Thatcher in 1988, this particular oration was widely trailed; indeed its contents cannot have come as a surprise to anyone with even a passing interest in UK politics.

And the Prime Minister’s central point certainly did not accept the EU orthodoxy; rather he specifically rejected it: urging radical reform of the European Union and the UK’s place within it.

In essence, Cameron is now demanding devo-max for the UK in Europe, and if that doesn’t work he wants independence. Indeed, throughout the Prime Minister’s speech, he talked frequently of the UK’s “independence”, its “sovereignty” and how he understood the emotional appeal of the UK “going it alone”.

Sound familiar? In fact there were whole passages in the speech that could have come from Alex Salmond rather than David Cameron having, of course, substituted “Scotland” for “Britain” and the “UK” for the “EU”. Take this, for example, basically describing a “social union”:

“If we leave the EU, we cannot of course leave Europe. It will remain for many years our biggest market, and forever our geographical neighbourhood. We are tied by a complex web of legal commitments. Hundreds of thousands of British people now take for granted their right to work, live or retire in any other EU country.”

And also this: “Of course Britain could make her own way in the world, outside the EU, if we chose to do so” – an echo of Cameron’s comments about the feasibility of Scottish independence in his Edinburgh speech early last year. His line about countries being different – “They make different choices. We cannot harmonise everything” – also applied as much to the nations and regions of the UK as it did in Europe.

Alex Salmond’s response to the speech, as ever, combined opportunism with some shrewd analysis. The Scottish Government is apparently opposed to a referendum on EU membership, which seems a curious position given its 13-year old support for an independence referendum, and indeed the SNP’s commitment to holding a referendum on joining the single currency post-independence.

It also suits the First Minister to portray the Prime Minister’s speech as an exit strategy, when in fact it was nothing of the sort. Cameron went out of his way to emphasise that he wants to remain in the EU, just on radically recast terms. Of course it’s possible that if those terms fail to transpire then the UK could leave, but that is not the Prime Minister’s primary intention.

Salmond, however, was spot on when he said:

“On the one hand he [Cameron] is trying to appease the Eurosceptics on his own backbenches and on the other he is trying to appear as a European reformer. He is trying to ride two horses at the same time and it is inevitable he will fall off before long.”

Very true, as was the First Minister’s assertion that “the Westminster parties have consistently claimed that a referendum on Scotland’s independence causes uncertainty”. The SNP MP Mike Weir skewered Cameron on the same point at Prime Minister’s Questions a few hours after the speech, asking why was it that he thought “Scotland’s two-year referendum process is too long but he thinks his five-year Euro marathon is just fine?”

Cameron did not really answer the question, because he realised the contradiction. Indeed, two other strands of the standard Unionist critique of the independence referendum – that there is no need to wait until October 2014 and voting “yes” might put Scotland outside the EU – have also been completely undermined by the Bloomberg speech.

In reality both the Scottish and EU referendums, almost by definition, cause uncertainty, for both could result in a change to the status quo; and in other respects, both Messrs Salmond and Cameron are on less than stable ground when it comes to the European landscape.

Although the First Minister continues to assert that an independent Scotland would negotiate membership from “within” the EU, the President of the European Commission explicitly disagrees (although other authoritative figures support Salmond’s position), while Cameron’s confidence that he will be able to negotiate a significant repatriation of power from Brussels is surely quixotic.

Both leaders, ironically, lack a degree of control in a very fluid situation, while both have (arguably) been compelled to hold referendums against their better instincts. Cameron, as the First Minister has argued, is a prisoner of his party, while Salmond, as many (including me) have argued before, became trapped from the moment his party secured an (unexpected) overall majority in May 2011.

The decision in both cases, of course, rests with the people, and holding an in/out referendum on Europe no more guarantees the UK’s exit from the EU than an independence referendum making a “yes” vote a foregone conclusion. Each could go either way, but they will do so following prolonged debate and a majority decision of, respectively, the UK and Scottish electorates. Salmond and Cameron may advise, but the electorate will decide.

Indeed, Nationalist criticism of Cameron’s decision does betray a certain lack of confidence in the decision of voters come October 2014. If, as many claim, a majority of Scots will back independence, then an EU poll by the end of 2017 is surely academic? For it will be rUK, rather than the UK, voting on continued EU membership.

Indeed, under questioning this morning the Prime Minister sought to link the two ballots, perhaps in attempt to contrive greater consistency than actually exists. Cameron argued that the 2014 and 2017 referendums both represented confronting difficult (and long-running) questions rather than attempting to ignore them.

To an extent, Cameron’s new position also presents a challenge to the SNP to describe what sort of EU it wants an independent Scotland to be part of. Although the party backs “independence in Europe”, if you dig a bit more deeply it is rather hostile to the Common Fisheries Policy, the Euro and closer fiscal integration.

So if there’s a “yes” vote in 2014 an independent Scotland would have to explicitly grapple with all those things. The SNP is also silent on the democratic deficit that arguably exists within the EU’s governing institutions (particularly the Commission); it’s very difficult to construct an argument that presents the EU, for example, as being more democratic than the UK. Cameron, to be fair, addressed precisely that issue in his speech.

So did Cameron’s speech open up a new front in the independence debate, as some have claimed? It has certainly made the battle for Scotland a little more interesting, although I reckon it presents difficulties and opportunities for both sides of the constitutional debate. Above all it demonstrates that the status quo – not holding referendum on Europe – was no longer an option, just as it was the case of Scotland’s future in the UK.

One last thing: ironically, if Cameron’s strategy works (a big if) and the UKIP fox is shot, boosting Tory fortunes and making the next general election winnable – perhaps with an overall majority – then it would also be good news for the “yes” campaign; for those who support independence have always calculated – with some justification – that the prospect of another Tory government in 2015 would boost support for independence as 2014 draws to a close.

Still, both sides could surely agree with at least one line in Cameron’s Bloomberg speech, that the decision should be taken “with cool heads”, and that proponents of “both sides of the argument will need to avoid exaggerating their claims”. True, one would hope, in the long road to 2014 and 2017.

 

David Torrance is a writer, journalist and broadcaster.
He is also author of
‘Salmond – Against The Odds’ a biography of Scotland’s First Minister