Today’s Think Scotland column takes a gander at the rumpus over an independent Scotland’s accession to the EU. Until recently the SNP promised that said accession would be automatic. Now it’s simply “common-sense”.  This is because Jose Manuel Barroso, the Spanish Iberian agent* at the heart of the EU Commission, has made an awkward intervention. Scotland would, he says, not be an automatic member of the club at all. Intuitively this is obvious just as Scotland would not be an automatic member of the United Nations. It would have to apply. Once it applied it’s application would most probably be accepted. There are few plausible grounds upon which to reject it.

With regard to Brussels, however, the truth is that no-one quite knows precisely what would happen. It is most unlikely that Scotland would fail to meet the criteria for EU membership. It is also the case that Scotland would be in little position to dictate terms. Small countries do not have as much clout as they used to think they do. That doesn’t mean Scotland would lose out in every particular, merely that in exchange for favourable rulings on questions such as the currency and border control one would expect Scotland to have to cede ground on other matters. That’s how the game works.

But the SNP have mishandled this. As I write:

Hubris – or, if you prefer, a characteristic lack of attention to detail – has struck again. By pretending there’d be neither any downside to independence nor even any complicating matters that might ensure the journey to independence might have its rocky moments the nationalists have given their opponents the chance to make more of any obstacle than might otherwise have been the case. Even small stones can be made to seem like mighty boulders once you have assured people the road will be wholly smooth.

Had the SNP instead said something to the effect that “while of course the precise terms and conditions of Scottish entry into the EU would have to be negotiated at a later point there are no grounds for supposing a perfectly satisfactory agreement could not be reached. The Scottish government is confident all parties to these negotiations – London, Brussels and Edinburgh – will act promptly and in good faith.” True, they would have had to concede that some details – especially whether Scotland might inherit British opt-outs – are as yet unknowable but this would be preferable to the bland, cheery assurance that all will be for the best in this best of all possible worlds.

The people are not fools. Not all of them anyway. Or not all the time. They appreciate that independence is a leap into the not-quite-known. Admitting that is no great admission. But doing so purchases some credibility too. There are some questions to which the SNP cannot sensibly have an answer. Pretending not only that they do have an answer but that it is invariably the correct answer risks making them seem like chumps deluded by their own fantasies.

This is avoidable. In theory, at any rate. But it is also a reminder that, on the SNP benches, there are very few “utilitarian” nationalists. That is to say, the majority of SNP MSPs and, I fancy, the membership too, have an a priori belief in independence that is subsequently – even fortuitously – bolstered by an analysis of the costs and benefits of independence. There are precious few who could be persuaded to abandon the dream even if persuasive evidence could be placed before them demonstrating the advantages of remaining within the British Union.

That is fine and a perfectly respectable position to hold. But, alas, it is but a minority view. By comparison, there are relatively few “existentialist” nationalists amongst the general public. Hence the SNP’s “utilitarian” drive to persuade us that independence is the answer to everything that presently ails Scotland (though, of course, much of the country is not ailing at all). This is fine as far as it goes but it takes the SNP less distance than they appear to imagine. It muddies the argument, diverting attention from questions of principle towards sniping claim and counter-claim on matters that are impenetrable, unresolvable or irrelevant to the bigger, grander question at hand.

In this respect, the EU argument is a distraction from the greater issue. Detail matters, of course, but from a nationalist perspective this EU argument is akin to wrestling with a pig. Even if you win you end up dirty. The upside is limited and hard to find; the downside obvious.

Reducing uncertainty may be a necessary part of making the “utilitarian” case for independence but the mere existence of that case or argument implicitly concedes there is no great issue of principle or injustice for which Scottish independence is the obvious, necessary remedy. Uncertainty hurts the SNP but so does pretending, preposterously, there’d be no uncertainty at all.

Whole thing here. At present, it seems as though the SNP are playing this game on Unionist territory. And they are losing.

*Time, clearly, for Edinburgh University to revoke the Honorary Degree they awarded Mr Barroso.

Tags: Alex Salmond, Brussels, EU, Europe, hubris, Scotland, Scottish independence, SNP, UK politics