'An auction of fear': the Scotland in Europe referendum, 1975: an earlier referendum in which Scotland's place in a larger political union was at stake.

Author:Saunders, Robert
Position::ESSAYS
 
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In February 2014, the President of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, tossed a grenade into what had previously been a rather tepid Scottish referendum campaign. Speaking to the BBC, he warned that an independent Scotland would have to reapply for membership of the European Union, and that securing admission would be 'extremely difficult, if not impossible'. His remarks drew a thunderous response from the Scottish National Party. The Deputy First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, called it 'a preposterous assertion', while Angus MacNeil, who shadows Nick Clegg at Westminster, accused Barroso of 'playing politics' with Scotland's internal affairs (BBC News, 2014; Herald, 2014).

Barroso's intervention infuriated the SNP, because it challenged the very foundations of the party's strategy for independence. Since 1988, the SNP has been committed to a policy of 'Independence in Europe'. As a full and active member of the European Union, Scotland would enjoy preferential access to continental markets and a stable political environment. Europe would act both as the guarantor of Scotland's viability and as a security against isolation, reconciling the blessings of democratic self-determination with co-operation in a larger political union (Tarditi, 2010, 14-15).

Yet the SNP was not always so enthusiastically European. In 1975, when the United Kingdom held a referendum on membership of what was then the 'European Economic Community' (EEC) or 'Common Market', the SNP campaigned vigorously for withdrawal. At a time when the Conservative Party and the right-wing press were overwhelmingly pro-European, it was the SNP that led the campaign for a Scottish 'No' to Europe. While Mrs Thatcher campaigned to keep Britain in Europe, resplendent in a woolly jumper that combined all the flags of the European member states, SNP policy documents warned that the European Community could strike 'a death blow to our very existence as a nation' (Tarditi, 2010, 11-12).

For students of the independence debate, the 1975 referendum provides a useful point of reference. This was Britain's first national referendum, and it offers the only previous occasion on which a first class constitutional issue, with implications for the UK as a whole, has been put directly to the electorate. Though this was a UK-wide vote, the campaign in Scotland had its own distinct identity. There were specifically Scottish campaign organisations--notably the pro-European vehicle 'Scotland in Europe'--with their own tactics, campaign materials and election literature. The referendum debate ranged far beyond the relationship between Britain and Europe, extending to the prospects for devolution, the survival of the union and Scotland's political and economic future. As such, it anticipated many of the concerns of the current independence debate, while showing how dramatically the context for that debate has changed.

'No taxation without representation'

Like all the major parties, the SNP approached the European question with divided counsels. In private, almost half of the party's eleven MPs favoured staying in the European Community, influenced in part by Ireland's successful Presidency of the European Council. Yet the grass roots and many of the party's most charismatic figures were strongly hostile to the Community, viewing it as a bureaucratic and undemocratic agency that would relegate Scotland to 'the province of a province'. The party settled on an uneasy compromise, which rejected membership as an adjunct of the United Kingdom, but left open the possibility that Scotland might re-apply for membership as an independent state. Acting on the principle of 'no taxation without representation', it was agreed that Scotland could only countenance membership as a fully autonomous state, with its own EEC Commissioners and independent representation on European institutions.

SNP thinking was shaped as much by tactics as by ideology. In a sign of how much has changed in recent years, the most pro-European part of the United Kingdom in the 1970s was unquestionably England. Support for European integration was significantly lower in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. As the results would be declared on a national and regional basis, this raised the prospect of a very public fracture between the component parts of the UK. A split of this kind, on an issue of such political and economic magnitude, would raise serious questions about the future of the union, particularly...

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