Saturday, 5 March 2016

It’s déjà vu all over again

So, we now have a date of June 23 for the EU referendum date, little over a month after the Holyrood elections on 5 May. It’s a racing cert that the debate about ‘who governs’ in Scotland is now set to be almost completely overshadowed by the debate raging in England about ‘where governs’.

Like most voters in Scotland, I start from the position of supporting EU membership, which for years has been the largely uncontested position in polite company. It’s a vote I don’t see the point in having and a debate I’d rather not waste any time engaging in although put like that, I realise that I sound uncomfortably like a certain type of ‘No’ voter that I’ve been quite happy to poke sticks at in the past.

Already, some of the parallels with our own Independence referendum are striking. Hailing his ‘deal’, the Prime Minister has warned that leaving the EU would be a "leap in the dark", and that "Britain will be safer, stronger and better off by remaining in a reformed European Union.” Close your eyes and you could be listening to the fearmongering nonsense-merchants of ‘Better Together’ all over again.

There will be a temptation on the part of some ‘inners’ to try and re-run more of the ‘No’ campaign from the Scottish Independence referendum by racking up the fear, the uncertainty and the doubt. We all know the script - play up the ‘risk’ of travel restrictions, higher prices, greater unemployment, corporate flight, lack of access to markets for our exporters, having to pay for medical care when on holiday… It will be crude, certainly, but will it be effective? Being realistic, against a ferocious and partisan tabloid and online presence clamouring for an out vote, it might be the only way to neutralise the tide of scare stories coming in the other direction.

In UK terms, I expect a dirty and dishonest campaign from both sides which has little at all to do with the nature of Cameron’s ‘deal’. In addition to all the aforementioned scare stories, along with a punch-up about whether bureaucrats in Brussels have their fingers in your wallet to put money in or to take it out, it seems set to be accompanied by some unpleasant dogwhistles about immigration. Bluntly, if we want any kind of higher minded debate, we’re going to have to try to make it for ourselves.

The Scottish political classes have long congratulated themselves on being more ‘pro-European’ than their English counterparts. I don’t think that’s necessarily true, although Scots certainly don’t see the EU as the existential threat which many on both the left and right of English politics seem to. For that reason, we need to set the terms for a Scottish debate on the fundamentals of why we should want to be in the EU, whatever the rest of the UK decides in June.

As a starting point, if there’s a case to be made for the EU, then it has to be about more than 'trade and co-operation' - there has to be something in there for hearts and minds as well. And thinking longer-term, mightn’t there be an opportunity - in Scotland at least - both to undercut the more outrageous fears and smears around ‘change’ more generally which we ourselves have been on the receiving end of during the Indyref debate, as well as to highlight how countries with much less ‘clout’ than the UK seem to make the EU work effectively for them?

Here’s a controversial suggestion - let’s concede from the outset that the ‘outers’ have a legitimate worldview. Of course it would be perfectly possible for the UK, or Scotland for that matter, to make its way in the world outwith the EU without detriment to living standards. We could, as we once did and as Norway and Switzerland still do, maintain a trade relationship with the rest of European Economic Area through EFTA, while negotiating on matters of mutual interest through a range of bilateral and multilateral agreements as appropriate. It’s a perfectly reasonable position - we just don’t happen to share it.

Instead, let’s make a pitch for those hearts and minds. Why, exactly, does the idea of ‘Europe’ still matter, and why does it need to be represented politically in the way that it is, warts and all? If it represents the best way of maximising sovereignty for smaller states and preserving material and environmental living standards in an era of globalised economics, and of preserving a strong European cultural influence on world affairs, then let’s say so unapologetically. More to the point, let’s do so in a way which allows our European neighbours to understand that the gruesome triumvirate of Boris, IDS and Farage certainly don’t speak for us.

Professor Neil MacCormick once described political sovereignty as being like virginity - you can give it away without someone else getting it, and that given away in the right circumstances it’s a cause for celebration and joy. That’s a sentiment which we should be doing our utmost to get across in amidst the soulless pseudo-beancounting which will almost certainly be a hallmark of both the official in and out campaigns.

At its heart, this debate is going to be about identity and outlook - if we end up reducing this to the cost of a basket of shopping or how much it’s going to cost to use your mobile phone next time you holiday in Spain, we’ll already have lost the argument. Worse than that, we’ll also - and deservedly - have lost the respect of our neighbours.