Why English euroscepticism could doom the Union

With Scottish voters far more pro-European than their English counterparts, the increasing doubt over EU membership could shift the odds in favour of independence.

A UKIP victory in the 2014 European elections could prove a game-changer in shaking up Scotland's independence referendum, putting the Yes camp back in the race, leading academic expert Charlie Jeffrey told the IPPR at the launch of a new report on Englishness earlier this week.

Many Scots say that if Britain seemed likely to leave the EU, they could change their minds about independence. Polling suggests this could erode the current steady lead for the pro-Union campaign and turn the referendum into a neck-and-neck race.

Jeffrey said that a UKIP victory in the 2014 elections, and increasing pressure for an in/out referendum in the political and media reactions to this, would create a sense that Britain's membership is in doubt, just a few months before the independence vote next September.

Professor Jeffrey, who heads the University of Edinburgh's politics department, is one of the co-authors of the new IPPR report England and its two Unions, which shows that there are increasingly divergent views of the EU north and south of the border, with English voters becoming more strongly eurosceptic and taking the prospect of exit very seriously, while most Scots believe that the benefits of EU membership outweigh the disadvantages.

The Future of England survey 2012 showed English voters saying they would vote to leave the EU by 50% to 33% in a referendum on the UK's membership. By contrast, a February 2013 poll showed Scots would vote to stay in the EU by 53% to 34% in a referendum on UK membership, while EU membership in the event of an independent Scotland was supported by 61% to 33%.

The IPPR report notes that many Scottish voters say that the prospect of the UK leaving the EU could shift their vote in a 2014 independence referendum. A May 2013 panelbase survey found attitudes to independence tied 44% both for and against "if the UK was looking likely to withdraw from the EU", compared to an otherwise steady lead for the pro-Union campaign.

Most polls find almost a third of voters favouring independence and a majority against. "Euroscepticism elsewhere in the UK could potentially narrow that gap if the Scots feel they could be dragged out of the EU against their will ... English Euroscepticism may be as much of a challenge for the UK's union as is Alex Salmond", says the report.

British eurosceptic politicians in both UKIP and the Conservative Party have tended to be strongly pro-Union. Nigel Farage has been emphasising his ambitions to expand in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. He told the Belfast Telegraph this week that he hoped to create a Dublin branch too.

The IPPR report shows that this Unionist perspective is not shared by the most anti-European voters. A strong sense of British identity is associated with more pro-EU attitudes, while the strength of English identity is strongly linked to Eurosceptic views. Those who say they are 'English not British' would vote to leave the EU by an overwhelming 72% to 17%, and those who are 'more English than British' by 58% to 28%. Those who are more British than English would vote to stay in by 45% to 37%

While UKIP want to end one Union and save another, there are English majorities for the Union with Scotland and, currently, for leaving the EU too, but that ticket is unpopular in Scotland.

Uncertainty over the EU had previously been difficult territory for Alex Salmond, as a claim to hold legal advice saying that an independent Scotland would not have to reapply for the EU unravelled. Increasing uncertainty about UK membership of the EU makes that a less potent charge, and could put the boot on the other foot. The issue also presents a potential "two unions" dilemma for pro-European Scots who support Alistair Darling and the 'Better Together' campaign.

There are currently Scottish majorities for staying in the UK and staying in the EU too. But this is not in Scottish hands. Only if the rise of English euroscepticism is checked would Scots be able to choose both unions for themselves.

David Cameron and Alex Salmond watch the Wimbledon men's final. Photograph: Getty Images.

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.