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Yesterday we learned that lucky old Scotland may have not one but two shots when the European Union is put up against the wall. A referendum on Scottish Independence in 2014, which could end with Scotland either finding itself outside the EU or resolving to hold its own referendum after being offered punitive new membership conditions. And if this shot goes awry, a UK referendum on membership of the EU itself in 2017.

Tychy would rather like Scotland and/or Britain’s departure from the EU to resemble Lithuania’s exit from the Soviet Union, with vast crowds assembling in all available public places to sing for their sovereignty. But the EU is more prosaic than the old Soviet bloc, and there are innumerable practical difficulties to extracting ourselves from it. Yes, it is tiresome. These days the activist for sovereignty is no longer a handsome young freedom-fighter with an ammunition belt around his neck and a peasant girlfriend in every village. Rather, he is a geekish policy expert with a head full of constitutional precedents and legislative implications. Contemplating your political independence, you are bored before you even begin.

It seems altogether healthier for politics to be orientated around increasing our wealth and freedom, and not with deciding upon which particular manifestation of the state is the most unobjectionable. The leftist blogger Obsolete today warns that “regardless of what they might say when asked specifically on it, the vast majority of people don’t care about Europe and the EU… They also care when politicians obsess about an issue that they feel has little bearing on their lives.” It may be that the EU is still only under attack from cranky tinpot Tories and piranha-like shoals of libertarian bloggers. But bear with me. Moving all of the constitutional furniture around really does remove obstructions and let in more light.

David Cameron’s commitment to an EU referendum is essentially a political mea culpa and one which is concerned only indirectly with a repatriation of powers. Cameron is ultimately attempting to build a new electoral powerbase which encompasses alienated-Tories and erstwhile-Tories, whilst reassuring the trendier ranks of Tories with his impassioned defence of the EU. It remains to be seen how successfully it all sticks together – looking down on this novice of the dark arts, Alex Salmond has scoffed that, “On the one hand he 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.”

Cameron’s strategy represents an important admission that the “modern” liberal-flavoured Tory project is not popular enough to deliver a lasting government. The game is not to repatriate powers but to cling on to power, and “game” is surely the best word for such a cynical and short-termist attitude to great questions of state. Yet the crucial binding agent – the glue holding any prospective coalition together – should not actually be seen as right-wing at all. An Observer poll from November 2012 revealed that 56% of Britons would vote No in an EU referendum, with a No vote from 68% of Tory and 44% of Labour voters.

By blurting out that Labour opposes an EU referendum, Ed Miliband has lurched deftly from being useless to disastrous. Many commentators point out that an EU referendum is conditional upon the Tories winning the next election. Surely the spectacle of a newly elected Labour (led) administration cancelling a promised referendum on our sovereignty would be too dire even for this country to imagine, let alone stomach? The Guardian today leads with commentary pieces from Martin Kettle and Timothy Garton Ash which warn loftily about the irresponsibility of Euro-scepticism. They dismiss the EU’s democratic deficit out of hand, as little more than trivia.

It is the Left which is here “sleepwalking” into disaster. The Left must submit earnestly to a period of de-toxification, to flush out the dangerous levels of poison which have accumulated in its system. They should have done this years ago. One cannot understate how devastating it is for the long-term credibility of the Left that “Euro-scepticism” is still seen largely as a right-wing issue.

This need for de-toxification is nowhere more evident than in Scotland (where 41% of voters favour a withdrawal from the EU). Superficially, Cameron’s EU referendum appears to import the existing uncertainty over EU membership from Alex Salmond’s independent Scotland into the Union itself. Yet the Scottish independence referendum now seems a lot smaller – a dress rehearsal for something else – whilst the nationalists are left looking naïve and amateurish in their dealings with the EU. José Manuel Barroso has so far tried to scotch Scottish self-determination by solemnly intimating that an independent Scotland might have to reapply for EU membership. His intervention is generally viewed in Scotland as representing merely an impartial clarification of legislative guidelines, and not as a sign that the EU is making up the rules as it goes along in order to meddle in our country.

The sheer bloodcurdling hypocrisy of insisting simultaneously upon an “independent Scotland” and subservience to the EU was exposed without mercy on last night’s Newsnight Scotland:

Gordon Brewer: Why shouldn’t the people of Scotland not have the right to a referendum?

Humza Yousaf [Scottish Minister for External Affairs and International Development]: The story here of the referendum, if you’re talking about the Scottish angle of the story here, is that absolutely these are…

Brewer:… you seem astonishingly reluctant to talk specifics and incredibly willing to just waffle… Let me make it very simple for you. You will have to negotiate Scotland’s position in the European Union. You’ve already said you don’t want to join the Euro. You want changes in the common fisheries policy. Once you’ve done that, should you win your independence referendum, will you give the people of Scotland the chance to say yea or nay to what you’ve negotiated and whether or not they want to be in or out of Europe in a referendum, not on independence but on an independent Scotland’s membership of the European Union?

Yousaf: No…

Brewer: And your answer is no?

Yousaf: No, because in November 2013…

Brewer: That’s specific.

Yousaf: Exactly, very specific, because we’ll be spelling out in November 2013 in the White Paper exactly what kind of prospectus for an independent Scotland we want to see.

Brewer[later]: Now just to be clear from you, so we don’t get, even if Scotland votes for independence, we don’t get the chance to vote on whether or not to be in or out of Europe? Just to make that absolutely clear.

Yousaf: We are putting this in order… I’ve said…

Brewer: You’ve said no…

Yousaf: Yes… in 2014…

Brewer: No you don’t mean yes, you mean no.

Yousaf: In 2014, in the referendum in Scottish independence, it will be that we will be members and engaging partners within Europe.

Brewer: Right. [lengthy pause] Yeah but why shouldn’t we have the chance? Let’s say people…

Yousaf: Because actually what happens if people vote for independence is you then have a number of political parties putting forward their prospectus for the first independent Scottish parliament. It may be up to political parties like the Tory party or other parties to put forward if they want to repatriate powers, not of course knowing what those specific repatriation of powers are, but putting forward…

Brewer: Do you think there’s a danger that the UK could leave?

Yousaf: Of course there’s a danger.

Brewer:…I’m just curious. Your plan then would be for Scotland to be a member of the European Union, not a member of the Euro, and a part of a currency zone with a country which is leaving the European Union?

Lord Palmerston famously claimed that, “Only three people… have ever really understood the Schleswig-Holstein business—the Prince Consort, who is dead—a German professor, who has gone mad—and I, who have forgotten all about it.” Imagine torturing future generations of schoolchildren – living under whatever geopolitical system – with the “specifics” of the Scottish Referenda Question.

But this interview is so excruciating because both men are using the very same words –“independence” and “referendum” – to talk about two political situations which they cannot agree to acknowledge are alike. The hypocrisy shines magnificently in glorious technicolour. There is a “danger that the UK could leave” the EU, but Brewer would never speak of the “danger” of Scottish independence, other than with the most strenuously implied quotation marks. That eternal visiting Martian would assume that Scotland was being dominated by two foreign powers and that Yousaf had quite randomly decided to seek independence from only one of them.

On the other hand, a clear difference between London and Brussels is that the former represents Scotland’s interests by means of a functioning democracy and a government with a history of devolving power to Holyrood. The danger for the Scottish independence campaign is that it degenerates into political cluelessness – bent upon attacking the dog’s tail rather than its teeth. Referendum campaigns may offer only an illusory promise of simple answers and decisive results. If the UK voted Yes to EU membership in a hundred successive referenda it would not alter the fact that democracy is superior to any other system of government.

[Tychy previously wrote about the Edinburgh Agreement here. Ed.]

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