I have seen it suggested over the last few days that the results of the European elections in Scotland demonstrate that the division between Scottish and English politics is less stark than commonly thought, and that this has undermined the case for independence. I don’t think this is true. In fact, I think it can only be argued by someone who hasn’t really paid attention to the details of the result.
The fact David Coburn can now add the letters ‘MEP’ after his name means that Scotland can no longer be described as a UKIP-free zone, as it formerly could. It means that Scotland is less emphatically anti-UKIP than it used to be – but only in the same way that the existence of a single Scottish Conservative MP means that Scotland is less emphatically anti-Tory now than it was from 1997 to 2001. No-one could plausibly argue that the existence of a solitary Conservative MP means Scotland is as pro-Tory as England, and equally no-one can plausibly argue that one UKIP MEP means Scotland is as pro-UKIP as its southern neighbour. This is easily demonstrated by looking at the figures.
In England, UKIP secured 27% of the vote, finishing in first place. In Scotland, they came fourth behind the SNP, Labour and the Conservatives, with a share of the vote (10.4%) that was only about one-third of what they achieved south of the border. That cannot rationally be presented as anything other than evidence of a profound disconnection between Scottish and English politics. The argument is that Scotland has a distinctive political identity, and ought for that reason – alongside its distinctive cultural and social identity – be an independent country. To insist that, in order to have its aspirations for self-determination taken seriously, Scotland must stand alone in resisting a Eurosceptic tide that swept across the independent, sovereign nations of an entire continent is to hold Scotland to an utterly unreasonable standard.
But let’s widen this out a little. Across the whole of (what is currently) the UK, the Conservatives and UKIP between them secured 51.4% of the vote. In Scotland, meanwhile, the SNP and Labour took a combined 54.8% share. That means that, across the UK as a whole, a little over half of all votes were taken by right-of-centre parties while, in Scotland, roughly the same proportion of electors voted for left-of-centre parties. It’s been obvious for several decades now, to anyone who wanted to see, that Scottish and English political culture have thoroughly decoupled from one another. But it’s hard to imagine a starker demonstration of that than this election result: the UK (dominated, as a matter of demographic fact, by England) is right-wing, Scotland left-wing.
If Scotland does not vote for independence, this disconnection will have consequences. For one thing, UKIP’s success across the UK as a whole has significantly increased the likelihood of an in/out referendum on the EU in the next few years. It is entirely conceivable that this referendum would result in a different outcome north and south of the border. (Another way of looking at these election results is that Scotland split roughly 2:1 pro- to anti-EU, while the UK as a whole voted by a narrow majority anti-EU.)* This scenario, if it were to play out, could result in a situation in which Scotland voted – potentially overwhelmingly – to remain in the EU, but was forced to watch helplessly as it was dragged out anyway by its southern neighbour. There could be few changes that would have a more significant impact on the future of Scotland, but while it remains in the UK Scotland is not master of its own fate.
Remaining in the Union would have other consequences, too. If a UK government made up of parties that hold a mandate in England but not Scotland decide to cut benefits even further after the next Westminster election – as is entirely plausible – those cuts will be unilaterally imposed on Scotland. This is exactly what happened with the bedroom tax. The majority of MPs representing Scottish constituencies voted against it, but it was imposed on Scotland anyway (although the Scottish government does now have a policy in place to mitigate the effects).
Not even areas of public spending that fall under the control of the Scottish government are safe. Thanks to the nature of the funding settlement between the constituent nations of the UK – google ‘Barnett consequentials’ if you want to bore yourself to tears understand the detail – the overall budget available to the devolved Scottish parliament is determined by funding decisions made at Westminster. If the UK government decide to slash and burn their way through public spending in England – and the two parties that just secured better than 50% of the vote in the Euro elections think austerity has gone nothing like far enough – then that will reduce the amount of money available to the Scottish parliament for schools, hospitals, transport, etc. This will apply irrespective of how much tax businesses and individuals in Scotland are paying, and irrespective of the political orientation of the government at Holyrood. As with the potential EU referendum, for so long as Scotland remains in the UK it is not master of its own fate.
As I see it, far from undermining the case for Scottish independence, the results of the European elections have only strengthened it. They have made apparent the deep left-right political split between Scotland and the rest of (what is currently) the UK. Moreover – by raising the prospect of a referendum on EU membership, and of ever more rightwing domestic policies being imposed on Scotland against its will after the next Westminster elections – the success of UKIP in England has drawn heightened attention to the fact that, so long as it remains in the UK, Scotland is not free to govern itself as it sees fit.
I know there are people who worry about the impact of Scottish independence on the election of left-of-centre governments to Westminster, and therefore on poor and vulnerable people elsewhere in the UK. But the truth is Scotland, even if it were to remain in the UK, could do little to help. Because of the relative sizes of their populations, Scotland’s votes would be insufficient to counteract all but the narrowest of right-wing majorities in England. (Something that’s underlined by the fact that, almost every time the UK has elected a leftwing government, that government has not been dependent on Scottish MPs for its majority.)
Scotland cannot save the poor and vulnerable of England from the depredations of rightist politicians – only England can do that (and will, if history is any guide). But Scotland can save itself, and in saving itself it can act as a practical demonstration that a different sort of politics is possible. That’s why everyone of a progressive political bent, whether they live north or south of the border, ought to be campaigning for a YES vote.
* – For the purposes of this very approximate calculation I’ve counted UKIP and the Conservatives as, respectively, staunchly and moderately anti-EU and the SNP and Labour as, respectively, staunchly and moderately pro-EU. I know that glosses over a lot of variation, but it holds broadly true, I think.