Today, the SNP maintains an unconditional faith in the EU order. But over the years, nationalists have struggled to reconcile themselves to transnationalism. George Kerevan recounts the winding path leading to the present dogmatism.
Within the boundaries of its staid electoralism, the Scottish National Party has always maintained a commendable commitment to internationalism. Today this is misdirected through an increasingly uncritical support for membership of the European Union – a view shared by much of the wider independence movement. Yet this pro-EU stance was not always so. In fact, for much of its recent history the SNP was officially (and actively) opposed to joining the European Common Market and the various antecedents of the EU. This was allied with vigorous opposition to NATO membership. What caused SNP policy to swing so far in the present direction?
The 1974 Referendum
In 1975 the Labour government of Harold Wilson – bitterly divided over the membership of the European Economic Community (EEC), recently negotiated by the outgoing Tory administration of Ted Heath – resolved its difficulties by holding Britain’s first ever political referendum on the issue. In Scotland, the SNP was the only major party to officially back a No vote. The SNP’s only allies in this lonely battle were those of us on the far left plus a few Labour dissenters. On the day, Scotland voted 58 per cent Yes compared with 69 per cent in England. Shetland and the Western Isles voted No, the only parts of the UK to do so.
The SNP’s leader at the time, Billy Wolfe, was happy to argue that continuing membership of the EEC would mean “a political dark age of remote control and undemocratic government”. Donald Stewart, an old ILP member who led the SNP’s parliamentary group, claimed the EEC “represents everything our party has fought against: centralisation, undemocratic procedures, power politics, and a fetish for abolishing cultural differences”.
Winnie Ewing, then the party’s most popular figure, offered an even bleaker assessment. She said that a vote to remain inside the EEC would be like signing a “death warrant” for Scotland and destroy any hopes of long-term Scottish prosperity. At that time the SNP was campaigning (successfully) on the slogan “It’s Scotland’s oil”. The party warned that Brussels would eventually take control of the North Sea oil fields.
The SNP’s position had not always been so clear cut. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, when the SNP was still a tiny fringe movement, party intellectuals had been enamoured of post-war moves towards European unity. But this mood evaporated as the Cold War set in and the Common Market and NATO emerged as bulwarks of Western influence. The SNP in the 1960s and 1970s swung to the left as the old Clydeside industrial complex imploded and disappointment grew regarding the feeble response of the Labour government in London. SNP opposition to Europe was perfectly in tune with the views of much of the Scottish left as was its opposition to NATO. Nor was SNP opposition to the “Europe of the monopolies” a knee-jerk reaction. It was well theorised.
To EEC or not to EEC?
The prospect of Scottish independence seemed very real in the 1970s as the UK economy imploded under the weight of inflation and foreign competition, while the state wavered in the face of militant labour unrest. As a result, SNP policy makers of the time devoted a lot of detailed attention to strategic economic planning – more so than the gadabout SNP government ever managed under Nicola Sturgeon. As regards potential relations with Europe, the debate was open-ended and more pragmatic than ideological. Two influential books were produced by SNP and pro-indy thinkers: The Radical Approach (1976) edited by economist and ex-Trotskyist Gavin Kennedy and Power and Manoeuvrability (1978) edited by jurist turned novelist Alexander McCall Smith. Both texts see a plausible case for a Scottish relationship with the then EEC based on free trade. But each cites the potential limitations on Scottish freedom of action as a result of EEC agricultural and industrial policies.
In both books, Stephen Maxwell – arguably the SNP’s leading intellectual of the day – promoted a radical reshaping of Scottish government and economy based on decentralisation and popular control. He posited that such a shift would clash with EEC rules on free movement of capital and labour, implying that indy Scotland – while seeking a close “relationship” with Europe – would seek to maintain its freedom of economic action, especially over oil policy. Interestingly, he expands this caveat to cover relations with the Nordic and European Free Trade Association (EFTA) countries.
Maxwell’s central line of argument is that there is little point in seeking a post-independence relationship with Europe (or the Nordic countries) that results in Scotland being no better off regarding control over its economy than it was inside the Union. The present author heard this point made again and again at SNP conferences by rank-and-file delegates, down to the 2014 referendum. This position – not so much anti-Europe as seeking a friendly modus vivendi that allowed Scottish policy manoeuvrability – was popular among SNP members, especially those who joined the party from Labour after the 1970s. Its logic has never been refuted.
Stephen Maxwell remained an opponent of EEC/EU membership until his death in 2012. It cost him politically. The party machine denied him a candidate interview for the 2009 European elections for refusing to sign a written undertaking that he would not criticise membership of the institution.
Enter Jim Sillars
This traditional sceptical position on EEC membership began to be questioned during the Thatcher years. In 1979, the Labour government set aside the democratic majority obtained in favour of a Scottish Assembly at the devolution referendum. This was followed in short order by Thatcher coming to power and the SNP losing most of its Westminster seats. Demoralization set in and a civil war between left and right broke out in the SNP ranks. Thatcherite austerity policies led to de-industrialisation and mass unemployment in Scotland. At this point, European institutions – shaped not by socialism but by Catholic Christian Democratic traditions of class collaboration and consensus – were perceived increasingly as a bulwark against the depredations of a marauding, Little Englander Thatcherism.
The first inklings of a turn in nationalist thinking came from the former Labour MP Jim Sillars who quit the party in 1976 over the opposition to devolution. Sillars set up the short-lived “Scottish Labour Party” with luminaries including the New Left philosopher, Tom Nairn. Inside the new SLP, Sillars authored a radical policy document entitled “Independence in Europe”. It is easy to see in retrospect that this position paper was heavily influenced by Nairn, who had been one of the few influential voices on the left to call for a Yes vote in the 1975 EEC referendum.
Sillars had opposed EEC entry but now he argued that de facto membership had advantages. Unionists could no longer argue that an independent Scotland would be economically and politically isolated. Above all (though rarely voiced explicitly) being pro-Europe was “modern” and a counterweight to the Unionist trope that Scottish nationalism was isolationist, reactionary and culturally backward.
The left in the Sillers SLP – myself included – saw this shift as a capitulation to the EEC and the big French, German and now British multinational companies whose interests it increasingly represented. What we did not immediately understand was that Sillars and Nairn (a late convert to independence) had found in Europe an argument for “modernising” Scottish nationalism and rescuing it (supposedly) from its Tartan, coothy origins. Or at least defending the independence movement against accusations of being narrowly ethnically nationalist. In this sense, being pro-EU still has a hold over much of the indy movement.
With the collapse of the tiny SLP, Sillars joined the SNP and became instantly influential on its left wing. He took his “Independence in Europe” line with him. The moment was propitious. Thatcherism was now dominant, the shop steward movement smashed, and trades union power circumscribed through draconian legislation. It is not surprising in these circumstances that the unions began to see EEC/EU labour and social regulations as a defence against further Tory inroads. Inside and outside the SNP, Europe was viewed in a more positive light.
This is not an illogical position. For instance, the European Working Time Directive – finally agreed in 1993 with only the UK opposing in the Council of Ministers – does lay down rules on work hours, holiday entitlements, night work and rest periods. However, using EU membership to win tactical advantages for the workers’ movement should not blind us to the real motives behind EU regulations. Essentially, such regulations are imposed at the behest of the big monopolies and larger member states to block competition from low wage economies joining the bloc. That is why such regulations are tightened with each EU enlargement.
The SNP’s turn to the EEC in the 1980s was facilitated by the fortuitous election of Winnie Ewing as a member of the European Parliament in 1979, just at the start of the Thatcher era. As an MEP, Ewing soon changed her mind on Europe. Famously she was dubbed “Madam Ecosse” by Le Monde for her assiduous lobbying on behalf of Scotland in Brussels and Strasbourg.
To give Ewing her due, she was a gifted and hard-working MP, especially when compared to the average Tory and Labour members – many of the latter lefty troublemakers or right-wing deadbeats sent into European exile to get them out of the way. I had the occasion to work with Ewing in the European Parliament while campaigning on behalf of the NUM Scottish Area and the Coal Communities Campaign. I can vouch for her non-sectarian approach. However, Ewing only achieved her success in Europe by going native. She embraced the EEC/EU for the next 20 years, shifting to Holyrood in 1999.
Winnie Ewing provided a direct channel between the SNP’s internal debate and the EEC as a political abstraction – a role later duplicated by Sturgeon acolyte Alyn Smith. Ewing made the far-off EEC a living reality plus she branded European institutions as “Scotland friendly”. The SNP would have embraced Europe anyway because – as Sillars understood – a small constitutionalist, nationalist party required an ideological relationship with something bigger than the metropolitan parliament it was dominated by. The SNP needed to internationalise its struggle and the EEC/EU proved a fortuitous (if problematic) potential ally. Through Winnie Ewing building that relationship proved easier than otherwise. But the role played by Madame Ecosse helped make the SNP uncritical of the EEC/EU as it is to this day. And that is the problem.
There is one other material factor that helped shift the SNP’s position on Europe. During the 1990s, when Madame Ecosse was at the height of her influence, there was a serious, Europe-wide debate over reforming and democratising the European Community institutions. This revolved around creating a “Committee of the Regions” that would eventually become a second chamber to the European Parliament and a counterweight to the Council of Ministers. This new chamber would give more direct power to the smaller member states and the historic regions of Europe. Eventually the obsolete imperial states – the UK, Spain, France, Germany – would dissolve into a “Europe of the regions”.
Clearly in retrospect this was a utopian project, but it got a lot of traction at the time. This writer was an official delegate to a number of European conferences related to the project which did lead to the creation of a much-neutered EU regional talking shop. However, the idea was swept aside by the Franco-German plan to create a single currency, which led de facto and inevitably to increased centralisation in the EU after 2000. However, for a moment in the 1990s, the concept of a democratic, peoples’ Europe looked possible. It is against this background we have to see how the SNP left was seduced by the European siren call.
It is curious to note that the conversion of the SNP to being pro-European had implications for the left-right divide in the party. The party leader in the 1980s, Gordon Wilson, was on the right politically. Wilson was engaged in a faction fight with the left, led amongst others by a young Alex Salmond. Wilson expelled Salmond and the so-called 79 Group but later readmitted them after a “truce” was agreed. Slowly the left moved to isolate Wilson. Led by Sillars, they got the SNP conference in 1988 to reverse the old anti-EU line by associating this position with Gordon Wilson and the right in the party. Sillars’ old “Independence in Europe” line became the party’s new campaign slogan. Being “European” was now seen as the progressive position.
Some of the old left could not stomach this change but were soon demonised as “fundies” – sectarian fundamentalists who supposedly were only interested in independence and nothing short of independence. Salmond artfully exploited this situation to seize the leadership in 1990, presenting himself as a progressive to the left and a moderniser to the party centre, and to the wider Scottish electorate.
Europe now began to play an increasing role in Salmond’s vision of a modern, independent Scotland. He began to invoke the example of the “Celtic Tiger” – the supposed economic revolution that independent Ireland had achieved inside the EU by exploiting low corporate taxes to attract inward investment from around the globe – and so create a low-cost export platform into Europe. Prior to the 2008 crash, these ideas had widespread popularity in official politics, and Salmond certainly raised support for the SNP. But he failed to mention that much of the profit earned by the Irish-based multinationals was repatriated to their home countries. Or that the outward success of the Irish “tiger” economy relied heavily on excess debt supplied by a reckless, ill-regulated banking system given free rein by crooked politicians. That tiger model exploded spectacularly in 2009, followed by the EU forcing Ireland to adopt austerity policies that plunged to country into penury.
Salmond used the new-found status of the SNP to help Tony Blair’s New Labour win the second devolution referendum, in 1997. But Scottish Labour proceeded to dominate the first Scottish Parliament elections. Salmond then resigned the SNP leadership only to return to win (outright) the 2007 Holyrood election. The way was open to the 2014 independence referendum. Here the Unionists concentrated their fire on the currency and European fronts. Time and time again, it was argued that an independent Scotland would either be denied EU membership (probably by a Spanish veto) or spend years in the wilderness negotiating entry. Much of the Scottish middle class duly voted No.
In these circumstances, Salmond had little choice but to play the good European. I doubt if he himself is an uncritical supporter of the EU in the way that Nicola Sturgeon proved to be. Salmond openly criticised the NATO-European bombing of Serbia in 1999, a move that cost the SNP votes. But Salmond was and is happy for tactical reasons to play the European card. He was particularly censorious of myself for setting up the Westminster All Party Group on Catalonia without consulting him. Despite the SNP’s longtime general support for Catalan independence, Salmond was inherently wary of any practical moves that might alienate the Spanish government.
Such are the contradictions inherent in the SNP’s pro-EU stance. We might note here that Salmond has sought to resolve these contradictions in his new Alba Party, which eschews EU membership in favour of an independent Scotland joining the far looser EFTA European Single Space arrangement – returning, full circle, to the earlier SNP idea of critical engagement with the institutions.
Sillars Changes his Mind
In the aftermath of the 2009 eurozone crisis, Jim Sillars dramatically reversed his old views on Europe. That’s not a criticism – with enlargement and the advent of the single currency, Europe was definitely changing and for the worse. Writing in his 2015 post-referendum book In Place of Failure, Sillars argued: “…power has transferred to those central organs of the EU, which are essentially undemocratic.” He went on to say that after the 2009 eurozone crisis, the EU used that power to “unseat democratically elected governments” in Greece and Italy and replace them with “unelected technocrats”. All of which is true. By 2017 Sillars views had hardened further. He announced he would be unable to vote for Scottish independence if it resulted in re-joining the EU.
Sillars was by no means alone in this thinking. Around 400,000 SNP voters are believed to have supported Leave in the 2016 EU referendum. But only one SNP minister – Sillars’ old friend from SLP days, Alex Neil – publicly advocated Leave. By now the party had shifted even further towards enthusiastic support for the EU. This shift was demographic and seismic. A study by academic James Mitchell in 2007 found a majority of the party membership in favour of Scotland joining the EU after independence. When Mitchell repeated the study, after the huge influx of 100,000 new members following the 2016 independence, he found that over 90 per cent of the party were pro-EU.
Aftermath of the EU Vote
An enlarged SNP was now hegemonic in Scotland under the leadership of Nicola Sturgeon. With this came a supremely uncritical worship of the EU, its institutions and its policies. At a private meeting of the SNP’s Westminster and Holyrood groups in 2015, I asked Sturgeon publicly if we should not advance some ideas on democratically reforming EU institutions and decision-making, as part of our campaign for the upcoming Brexit referendum. She looked pained and replied curtly that any such move would only “confuse the message” to the voters. In retrospect, I think there was also a hint of panic on her face. Clearly, she hadn’t ever thought about EU reform and had no notion of how to go about it.
The Sturgeon leadership could justify its pro-EU line by arguing that – post England’s vote to Leave in 2016 while Scotland voted overwhelming for Remain – the Remainer Scottish middle classes had swung behind independence. However, that brought a new contradiction. A sizable chunk of the pro-indy working class is suspicious of the EU. As well they might be after Brussels imposed draconian austerity policies on a host of small member states in the aftermath of the 2009 euro crisis, basically in order to save the German banks who had lent recklessly (and profitably) to southern Europe. An unfettered adulation of the EU does not necessarily go down well in working class districts.
Certainly, Sturgeon’s vehement pro-EU stance won her support inside Europe itself, especially with the advent of the Boris Johnson government. The same can be said for the party’s increasingly warm and muscular embrace of NATO. But this faux internationalism masked a dangerous truth: the SNP Holyrood administration under Sturgeon had adopted an economic policy premised on opening Scotland to a fresh influx of foreign capital. One after another, sections of the Scottish economy became foreign owned, especially in finance, construction, property, power, tech and agribusiness. Of the smaller West European economies, Scotland is now perhaps the most dominated by foreign capital. This provided the material underpinning for the SNP’s slavish support for EU membership. Not so much “independence in Europe” as “owned by Europe”.