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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Everyone's forgotten the one issue that united the Labour party

There was a time when Ed Miliband spoke at Momentum rallies.

To label the row over the EU at Thursday’s Labour leadership hustings "fireworks" would be to endow it with more beauty than it deserves. Owen Smith’s dogged condemnation of John McDonnell’s absence from a Remain rally – only for Corbyn to point out that his absence was for medical reasons – ought to go down as a cringing new low point in the campaign. 

Not so long ago, we were all friends. In the course of the EU referendum, almost all of the protagonists in the current debacle spoke alongside each other and praised one another’s efforts. At a local level, party activists of all stripes joined forces. Two days before polling day, Momentum activists helped organise an impromptu rally. Ed Miliband was the headline speaker, and was cheered on. 

If you take the simple version of the debate, Labour’s schism on the EU appears as an aberration of the usual dynamics of left and right in the party. Labour's left is supposedly cheering a position which avoids advocating what it believes in (Remain), because it would lose votes. Meanwhile, the right claims to be dying in a ditch for its principles - no matter what the consequences for Labour’s support in Leave-voting heartlands.

Smith wants to oppose Brexit, even after the vote, on the basis of using every available procedural mechanism. He would whip MPs against the invocation of Article 50, refuse to implement it in government, and run on a manifesto of staying in the EU. For the die-hard Europhiles on the left – and I count myself among these, having run the Another Europe is Possible campaign during the referendum – there ought to be no contest as to who to support. On a result that is so damaging to people’s lives and so rooted in prejudice, how could we ever accept that there is such a thing as a "final word"? 

And yet, on the basic principles that lie behind a progressive version of EU membership, such as freedom of movement, Smith seems to contradict himself. Right at the outset of the Labour leadership, Smith took to Newsnight to express his view – typical of many politicians moulded in the era of New Labour – that Labour needed to “listen” to the views Leave voters by simply adopting them, regardless of whether or not they were right. There were, he said, “too many” immigrants in some parts of the country. 

Unlike Smith, Corbyn has not made his post-Brexit policy a headline feature of the campaign, and it is less widely understood. But it is clear, via the five "red lines" outlined by John McDonnell at the end of June:

  1. full access to the single market
  2. membership of the European investment bank
  3. access to trading rights for financial services sector
  4. full residency rights for all EU nationals in the UK and all UK nationals in the EU, and
  5. the enshrinement of EU protections for workers. 

Without these five conditions being met, Labour would presumably not support the invocation of Article 50. So if, as seems likely, a Conservative government would never meet these five conditions, would there be any real difference in how a Corbyn leadership would handle the situation? 

The fight over the legacy of the referendum is theatrical at times. The mutual mistrust last week played out on the stage in front of a mass televised audience. Some Corbyn supporters jeered Smith as he made the case for another referendum. Smith accused Corbyn of not even voting for Remain, and wouldn’t let it go. But, deep down, the division is really about a difference of emphasis. 

It speaks to a deeper truth about the future of Britain in Europe. During the referendum, the establishment case for Remain floundered because it refused to make the case that unemployment and declining public services were the result of austerity, not immigrants. Being spearheaded by Conservatives, it couldn’t. It fell to the left to offer the ideological counter attack that was needed – and we failed to reach enough people. 

As a result, what we got was a popular mandate for petty racism and a potentially long-term shift to the right in British politics, endangering a whole raft of workplace and legal protections along the way. Now that it has happened, anyone who really hopes to overcome either Brexit, or the meaning of Brexit, has to address the core attitudes and debates at their root. Then as now, it is only clear left-wing ideas – free from any attempt to triangulate towards anti-migrant sentiment– that can have any hope of success. 

The real dividing lines in Labour are not about the EU. If they were, the Eurosceptic Frank Field would not be backing Smith. For all that it may be convenient to deny it, Europe was once, briefly, the issue that united the Labour Party. One day, the issues at stake in the referendum may do so again – but only if Labour consolidates itself around a strategy for convincing people of ideas, rather than simply reaching for procedural levers.