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The EU referendum is not about identity. That’s why it is easy to vote to stay In

11 November 2015

7:43 PM

11 November 2015

7:43 PM

A few weeks ago, I suggested that many of the arguments that will be trotted out during the forthcoming – and lacklustre – EU referendum will be wholly familiar to anyone who paid attention to last year’s referendum on independence for Scotland. And so it is proving.

Sensible people – of whom there are more than is sometimes realised – should be able to appreciate, even if they are minded to vote In, that leaving the EU would not be a disaster for Britain. In like fashion sensible Unionists – of whom there were also more than is sometimes appreciated – could concede that an independent Scotland was not doomed to become a Tartan Basket Case. Even the name of the No campaign, Better Together, conceded as much since Better Together does not in itself mean Dreadful Apart.

And, of course, we have already seen how the In campaign in the EU referendum is trying to persuade us all to think of the Out campaign as Project Nasty. This is, I suggest, a nice try but one unlikely to catch on. It is, however, a reminder of how the Scottish experience is being drawn on.

By both sides, in fact. Dan Hannan, for instance, writes that those of us who advocated a No vote in Scotland last year but are wary of the potential consequences of the UK leaving the EU, are mistaken. The two situations, he says, are not nearly as comparable as you might think. After all:

[T]he parallel is a weak one. The EU, much though it would like to be, is not a single country. It doesn’t have a common identity, resting on a mutual language, shared mores and 300 years of united history. When Alex Salmond argued for rupture, he was proposing a revolutionary change: separate embassies and armed forces and coins.

There is a good deal of truth to this. But Hannan fails to appreciate, I think, that a good number of Yes voters did not think of themselves as warriors for freedom but, rather, as hard-headed rationalists who thought Britain’s time was up and Scotland could do better alone. Scots’ emotional attachment to the Union is much, much, weaker than it was. (The same, increasingly, may be said about the English.) Now some of these Yessers may have been kidding themselves and you may in any case think them mistaken. Nevertheless, this is how they saw themselves.

But Hannan is right to suggest that vanishingly few folk on this blessed isle are intimately or emotionally attached to the idea of the european idea. In its warmer moments enthusiasm for the EU is tepid.

This cuts both ways, however. Just leaving the EU, while arguably sub-optimal, is not the road to hell nor is remaining a member of the european institutions the road to national perdition. It might not be ideal; it is scarcely intolerable. Or, if you prefer, the sense it is intolerable is not widely shared.

Which is why many people scratch their head when they see people like, to choose a notable example, Dan Hannan thundering on that leaving the EU is the only way to ‘restore our national independence’ or recover ‘freedoms enjoyed in recent memory’. They scratch their heads and think: what in the name of the wee man is he talking about?


I mean, if being a part of the EU is bondage it’s the kind of bondage The Beano’s Walter the Softy would consider insufficiently adventurous.

By all means make the case for leaving but just as Natjobs shouting FREEDOM made themselves look ridiculous during the Scottish referendum, so eurosceptics crying the same in this campaign will chump themselves. Even, especially, when they start marching on the BBC.

None of which means the case for leaving the EU has to be made idiotically. It’s just that, too often, many of its keenest advocates seem determined to make their case in that manner. That’s their choice, I guess, but I suspect it cannot help their cause.

It’s precisely because there is precious little emotional connection to the EU that the Better Off Out brigade have a chance, if still an odds-against one, of prevailing. The British Union, by contrast, was saved – in large part – because enough of that connection remains. At least for now.

Most people in Britain, I think, view the EU as a kind of club. It may not be a great club. Its rules and regulations are often hard to understand and the club’s management are hopeless at explaining their actions and motives. Nevertheless, it is the club we are part of and so long as people are persuaded the benefits of membership outweigh the advantages of not being a member then it is likely they will choose to remain. Yes, it costs but that’s because it’s a club.

Now Dan Hannan may persuade people that membership is too expensive and delivers too little for it to be worth the candle. But if that happens then there will be consequences and it is entirely reasonable for other people – especially, I would suggest, Scottish Unionists – to worry about what some of those consequences might be. Hannan airily dismisses these concerns:

Even if England and Scotland did diverge (which is unlikely) and a second referendum were held, why should Scots shift their votes? Can you honestly imagine anyone saying, “I voted ‘No’ in 2014, but I’m so desperate to join the euro that I’m ‘Yes’ this time”?

Actually, yes I can. Not because of any enthusiasm for the euro (far from it) but because I can easily imagine that many people would consider this a sign that the British jig is up. And, yes, if Scotland were to leave the EU without having endorsed the idea itself I do believe some people, a good number of people, would – however reluctantly – look more favourably upon independence.

True, there would be difficulties. Not because Scotland would not become a member of the EU (it is hard to see how an organisation willing to welcome almost everyone else would reject Scotland) but because resolving matters between Scotland the rump UK would be even more complicated and freighted with uncertainty if one was in the EU and the other was not than it would be if independence negotiations were being conducted right now.

Then again, Dan Hannan and those of his ilk, tell us that there’d be no trade barriers between Britain and the EU if Britain left and he may be right. In which case perhaps the process of arranging cross-Tweed trade rules would be less difficult than it might initially appear. But who knows?

I’d rather not risk that. Hannan, however, suggests that those of us who would rather not go through all of this all over again should make common cause with, well, Dan Hannan:

If their main concern is to avoid a differential vote, and thus a second independence referendum, then, logically, they should be urging other Scots to vote to leave.

The logic of this escapes me. Or, to put it another way, it makes just as much sense to say that we should be urging people in England to vote to stay. That, right now, seems the easier way to avoid a ‘differential vote’.

Or one of the potential differential votes, anyway. There are other troubling scenarios to consider, too. Suppose, just for the sake of argument, that the vote is extremely close but, by a whisker, the UK votes IN. Then suppose that England narrowly voted OUT but the final result is determined by IN votes delivered by Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. What happens then? There would, I suggest, be much disgruntlement.

Hannan concludes that the problem with the EU is that:

Its supporters are giving it all the attributes and trappings of government without any underpinning sense of nationhood. That’s the whole problem. That’s why we should vote to leave.

Really? No-one in this country thinks of the EU in that fashion and while I daresay there are people in Brussels who do think that way is it not the case that the French remain French, the Poles Polish, the Estonians Estonian and so on?

It is precisely because the idea of a pan-european identity is so weak that, actually, some of us think the costs of remaining are, at least for now, entirely supportable. Britain currently enjoys the advantages of membership while, happily, being insulated from a good number of the EU’s less sensible ploys. You could even, if you felt like it, consider it the Best of Both Worlds.

I understand it if Dan Hannan and others dismiss the hypothetical consequences of what might happen if Britain left with a breezy not gonna happen but that does not mean we all need be quite so cheery about those potential consequences. Because what if they did happen? Which is why if the British Union needs to be supported by British membership of the EU a good number of people – including, incidentally, Ruth Davidson – are prepared to say that’s a price worth paying. Dan Hannan’s mileage differs, of course, but what’s bully for him is not bully for everyone.


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