The UK faces two referendums about its future, not one. As well as David Cameron’s promised ‘proper’ referendum on the UK’s relationship with the European Union, there is also the one on Scottish independence due on 18 September 2014. By and large, despite similarities in the arguments involved, each of those debates has paid little regard to the other. That makes sense if the EU referendum takes place in the next UK Parliament, around 2017 or so, once the dust has settled on the Scottish vote. Suggestions of an earlier referendum may throw that into doubt. The dynamics of the debate about Scottish independence would look very different if the EU poll were held before the Scottish one.
What would happen if there were an ‘English’ vote against the European Union, while majorities in Scotland (and perhaps Wales and Northern Ireland) voted to stay in? That’s a perfectly realistic scenario: political debate generally in Scotland is much more pro-EU than in England, and opinion surveys suggest that there is some difference in public opinion (if not as much as the political rhetoric implies). An English vote to leave the EU while Scotland voted to stay in would trigger a first-order crisis for the internal structure of the UK as well as the UK’s relationship with the EU.
A great deal depends on the timing – whether an early EU referendum happens before the Scottish one in September 2014 or after it. A very early EU poll would be seriously rushed. But at least it would mean that the issue of the UK’s future in Europe would be resolved before Scotland’s place in the UK was. Scottish voters would be able to cast their votes on independence knowing whether they were choosing to remain in a UK-in-Europe or leave it, or to stay in the EU but leave the UK, or (conceivably) to find themselves outside both Unions. However difficult those choices, at least Scottish voters will know what the choice is.
But an EU referendum in the late autumn of 2014 or early 2015 raises a messier prospect. Scots will be being asked to vote on whether to remain in the UK without knowing whether that state will be part of the EU or not. A vote to leave would be a game-changer – especially if it had majority support in England but not Scotland. The SNP might well argue that it reopened the supposedly ‘decisive’ choice made at the independence referendum, but a better argument would be to postpone – with UK agreement – the Scottish referendum. There would be considerable attractions for doing so. The Yes Scotland pro-independence campaign cannot be said to be going well, with the proportion of Scottish voters favouring independence scarcely moving since 2011 (most polls show it at around 33 per cent of voters, or less), reports of the need for the campaign to up its game and the currency issue opening up serious divisions within pro-independence supporters. In short: the Yes campaign is fighting what is increasingly becoming an uphill struggle, and is badly in need of a way of reinventing itself. A delay, and a chance to draw further differences between Scotland and the rest of the UK, would fit the bill very well.
So, unlikely as it may be, if David Cameron decides to pay heed to those anti-EU voices, and is able to make a referendum on the EU happen before 2015, that will affect the Scottish referendum too. It would give the SNP a perfect excuse to decline to press ahead with the 2014 Scottish referendum, and to revisit the issue afterward when it can claim the UK’s relations with the EU are clearer. At the very least, even if the UK voted yes to the EU, a pause would give supporters of independence a chance to regroup and rethink key areas like currency where under-preparation has already shown to be a weak spot. If the UK as a whole voted against the EU, that would open a much wider range of issues, probably to the SNP’s advantage. No 10 would be well advised to think hard about the Scottish implications of giving any more red meat to the Eurosceptics.
Alan Trench is author of the blog ‘Devolution Matters’, and is working with IPPR on its Devo More project.