David Cameron has committed two inexplicable blunders in his handling of the referendum on independence for Scotland, to be held in autumn 2014 – barely two years away.
First, he has agreed with Alex Salmond that there will be only two options at the referendum: independence or the status quo. Thus Scots won’t be allowed to vote for what most of them want, according to the polls: neither independence nor the status quo, but ‘devo max’, aka ‘Home Rule’ or ‘full internal self-government’. Offering the two options which most Scots don’t want is a reckless gamble by Cameron: he’s betting on the Scots choosing the status quo as the closest available thing to Home Rule. Salmond, equally reckless, bets on Scots regarding independence as the nearest option to Home Rule, and voting accordingly. If Cameron has guessed wrong, the result of his gamble will be the disintegration of the United Kingdom – the calamity for which history will remember him.
The second Tory blunder is Cameron’s failure to ram home the message that according to the best legal advice and opinions expressed by the EU Commission, if Scotland becomes independent it will have to apply for EU membership as a new state – contrary to Salmond’s unsupported assertion that since Scots are EU citizens by reason of the UK’s EU membership, they would remain EU citizens on independence and no question of a Scottish application for membership would arise.
The Guardian of November 2nd quoted a British government statement that its Law Officers, citing precedents, formally advise that the UK’s EU membership would continue after Scottish secession but that Scotland would need to apply for membership. EU conditions for admission of new members include adoption of the Euro and membership of the Schengen group of EU countries with no internal border controls for travel between Schengen countries. Both conditions would raise enormous, probably insuperable problems for Scotland, including abandoning sterling and joining the crisis-ridden Eurozone: and imposing controls on movements across the border with England. Moreover Scotland’s application could well be vetoed by, for example, Spain, which fears that acceptance of Scotland in the EU would encourage the Catalans to redouble their campaign for independence from Spain.
There is much stronger support for the EU in Scotland than in England, and the prospect of automatic EU membership for an independent Scotland, as forecast by the SNP, has been one of the strongest arguments for independence. Now we know that it would be far from automatic and that the conditions for membership could well be unacceptable. So a vote for Scottish independence would risk leaving Scotland isolated and friendless, outside the EU — the exact opposite of what the Scots have been led to expect.
Yet this enormously significant statement by the UK government has passed almost unnoticed, as if it had little relevance to the debate on the pros and cons of Scottish secession. Interest has focused instead on the more sexy but far less significant question whether Salmond lied when he implied that his government’s lawyers had tendered formal advice that Scotland would remain in the EU on independence with no need to apply for membership, whereas it emerged that they had not. Why has the UK government not ensured that its bombshell statement is plastered all over the front pages of the Scottish newspapers, dominating the lead stories on television and radio? There’s no obvious explanation for such failure other than incompetence and indolence, coupled with inability to grasp the significance of the statement.
It’s sometimes argued that the Scots can’t be offered a Home Rule option when there’s no reliable definition of what it would mean. Fortunately the Scottish Lib Dems have done their homework and produced an admirable document spelling out how it would work, including its possible and wholly positive implications for the rest of the UK. It’s a huge pity that this blueprint for devo max, the completion of devolution, was not produced first by the Labour Party; but its Lib Dem parentage offers an excellent opportunity for Labour and the Lib Dems to join forces in defence of the survival of the United Kingdom by promising that if Scotland votes against independence in 2014, a future Labour government, with wholehearted LibDem support, will offer Scotland a new referendum offering the option of Home Rule within the UK on the basis of the LibDem policy document. Labour should also ensure maximum publicity for the definitive statement on Scotland and the EU issued, almost in secret, by HMG.
If the Tory-led coalition is too incompetent to grasp this double opportunity to preserve the integrity of our country, Labour can and should step in now to fill the vacuum.