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Europe will affect the Scots referendum, but not in the way everyone expects

17 January 2014

5:59 PM

17 January 2014

5:59 PM

With William Hague in Glasgow this morning, the Scottish independence debate has swung round to Europe once again.

Europe is indeed going to be important as we head towards the referendum, but perhaps not in the way everyone expects.

The Foreign Secretary spent this morning warning that Scots would be worse off if they left the UK and then joined Europe as a separate country – without the UK’s rebate.

This will rumble on until the September 18 poll, with claim and counter claim from both sides and neither able to prove anything definitively.

Hague’s visit, though, has overshadowed one intriguing piece of polling data which could prove to be highly significant later in the year.

So far, the perceived wisdom ahead of May’s European elections has all been about Ukip and how well they are going to do this year.

According to a YouGov poll on European voting intentions, released this week, Ukip may well do very well in England.

But the party will find it much harder going in Scotland. According to YouGov, Ukip is on just 10 per cent of the vote in Scotland (compared to 26 per cent in England), just one percentage point ahead of the Greens on nine per cent.

That means that while Ukip can expect to pick up seats all across England, they will have to battle it out with the Greens for the last of Scotland’s six seats (with two likely to go to Labour, two to the SNP and one to the Tories).

The Greens are bullish and believe they can take that final Scottish seat and they have form.

The Greens have been represented in the Scottish Parliament since its inception and are now polling ahead of the Liberal Democrats north of the border.

Now, this polling evidence does come with a cautionary proviso that the sample size for Scotland in a UK-wide poll is quite small. But there is a wider point here. Whether or not Ukip actually get a seat in Scotland, it is now clear that Scots see Europe very differently to their colleagues in England.

The polls show that Scots are generally much more Europhile than the English, they are more sympathetic to Europe and repelled by the brand of Eurobashing favoured by Nigel Farage and his acolytes that seems to be so effective south of the border.

So if, as expected, England elects Ukip MEPs in record numbers and if, as a result, the Tory-led coalition drifts towards a more overtly Europhobic stance, that will alienate a lot of Scots just a couple of months ahead of the referendum.

Alex Salmond’s government has made much of its pro-European approach and the First Minister will be the first to exploit what will then be a clear difference in approach to the continent north and south of the border.

And, with the coalition government standing by its decision to hold a referendum on European membership, the option of an independent Scotland defiantly and completely remaining within Europe will have growing appeal.

Ukip may get a seat in Scotland. If it does so, that will represent a major – and, it has to be said unexpected – breakthrough for the party.

The chances are, though, that Ukip will miss out and, if it does, then the contrast between an increasingly Eurosceptical England and a determinedly Eurofriendly Scotland will become stark.

And it will be that clear and obvious difference on Europe that will ultimately be most influential when it comes to the referendum, not arguments over the rebate or the Schengen agreement – however interesting those may be to Hague, Nicola Sturgeon and everyone else in the Holyrood bubble.

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