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Failing to learn the lessons of indyref

If someone could persuade me that Britain would be much worse off financially if we voted to leave the EU, I would almost certainly vote to remain. The same argument applied with regard to Scotland during the independence referendum. I was persuaded by the economic arguments, that Scotland would be worse off financially if we chose to leave the UK. But why was I persuaded and why did those same arguments fail to persuade so many Scottish independence supporters? The reason is simple. I wanted Scotland to remain in the UK, no matter what the economics said. Therefore economic arguments could “persuade” me. If on the other hand I had been convinced of the rightness of Scotland leaving the UK why would I have been deterred by mere economics? After all, most countries that have achieved independence have done so by means of some sort of struggle. Some have fought wars. Some have faced all sorts of economic difficulties and overcome them. Have any of these places been deterred by short term economics? Have they even thought about such things?

I’m fairly agnostic about the EU. There are things about it that I like and things about it that I dislike. I’m also rather uninterested. I don’t follow the goings on in the European Parliament. I couldn’t even name my MEP. I find excessive enthusiasm about the EU a turn off, but I also find excessive scepticism distasteful. There are people in the UK who have already made up their minds about which way they will vote in the EU referendum, but I’m not one of them. The same was, of course, the case in Scotland. I was never going to change my mind, but then again neither was Alex Salmond. What matters in the upcoming EU in/out campaign is those who are undecided. My guess is that there are a lot of us.

Every time someone said something negative during the indyref campaign people like me cheered. I was overjoyed when Mark Carney intervened, when George Osborne said Scotland would not be able to keep the pound, when Barack Obama said Scottish independence was a bad idea and when someone in the EU said Scotland would not get to stay. Surely this time, I thought, we will pull ahead. Surely this time we’ll convince those independence supporters of their folly. But all this bad news was preaching to the confirmed. It made me more likely to vote No, but then I was voting No anyway. It had the opposite effect on the people who were inclined to vote Yes. It made them more determined. It also turned the undecided into Yes voters and even turned some wavering No voters into Yes voters. All this negative news didn’t help the Better Together Campaign, it helped the nationalists. If there had been any more advice about the disaster that would occur if Scotland voted for independence, we would have indeed voted for it.

The same pattern is already happening with the EU campaign. Mark Carney has subtly suggested that leaving the EU would be a bad idea. The USA has said they wouldn’t trade with the UK if we left. Standard & Poor have been talking about knocking some points from our credit rating. It’s as if these people have learned nothing. The correct reaction for someone who thinks it is right for the UK to leave the EU is to say so what? We’ll manage.

It was always preposterous to suggest that Scotland could not be independent. In the past thirty years loads of countries in Europe have become independent. Some have set up their own currencies. Some have gone through various economic struggles. But if Lithuania can become independent, Scotland certainly can. I don’t think Scotland ought to become independent, because the UK is my home and I don’t want it to break up. But this has nothing whatsoever to do with my views on whether Scotland could become independent. There might be some struggles, but so what? The best argument for Scottish independence would have been, it might be tough at first but it would be worth it. If you think Scotland ought to be independent, you ought not to be deterred by trivia like economics.

The same obvious goes for the EU. It is simply preposterous to suggest that the UK could not survive outside the EU. The UK is the fifth largest economy in the world. Many people predict that soon we will overtake Germany and become the fourth largest economy. For goodness sake, Iceland which has an economy ranked over one hundred places lower than ours and a population the size of Cardiff can function perfectly adequately outside the EU.

It’s perfectly legitimate in a debate for people to list pros and cons. But if someone really believes that the UK should leave the EU, the correct response to the cons is to say, fine there would be some tough times ahead, but it would be worth it. We’ve been through tough times before. No doubt we’ll survive this time too. The danger for those who are desperate to persuade the UK not to leave the EU is that their negativity will backfire. At some point when someone keeps telling you that you can’t do something, you turn around and say just watch me. This is exactly what happened in Scotland. The negative campaigning got people’s backs up. It was Better Together that turned 25% support for independence into nearly 50%. It was Better Together that destroyed the Labour party.

If I were campaigning to keep the United States together, would I talk about the economic advantages of doing so? It’s preposterous even to put the question like that. It would indeed be an economic disaster if California left the USA. There would be all sorts of unpleasant ramifications if the United States became fifty countries rather than one. But there is just no need to point out these obvious facts. Rather to keep the USA intact I just need to point out to Americans that “this land is your land, this land is my land”. I just need to point out the shared identity of Californians and New Yorkers, the shared heritage and history.   Exactly the same point applies to the UK. That was all we needed to say. It’s all we need to say now.

The difficulty for those who want the UK to stay in the EU is that they only have negative arguments. What’s more the correct response for someone who wants the UK to leave the EU is to say so what? A pro EU campaign ought not to be pointing out what dreadful things will occur if the UK votes to leave. Rather it ought to be pointing out what a wonderful thing the EU is and how much we all love it.

There was a time when it was possible to be idealistic about the EU. I once liked the idea of the EU becoming a United States of Europe. It’s possible to be idealistic about bringing down borders and creating one people out of many, one nation, democratic, free, federal and devolved. If the EU were to be a democracy like the USA with a single currency an elected president and parliament that ran those matters that were shared between the states and devolved parliaments in every state, if this were on offer, I think I’d take it. But this isn’t on offer. The UK doesn’t want to be part of such an ideal. It’s not clear anyone else does. We’ve already rejected those aspects of the EU, like the Euro and Schengen that serve to bring about “ever closer union” so we’ve already rejected the ideal. But then so has everyone else. The Germans and other rich northern countries have rejected the condition for the possibility of a currency union that it transfers money freely among all the members. EU countries are in the process of rejecting Schengen too by the simple means of putting up barbed wire fences. An iron curtain has descended across the EU, or it soon will if we’re not careful.

The ideal of the EU has rather turned sour. What can I be positive about? Well we have this wonderful European Parliament that flits between Brussels and Strasbourg. We have this delightful unelected European President, Mr Juncker. I absolutely adore the European Commission. What’s not to like about the Common Agricultural Policy? Where would we be without the Common Fisheries Policy? What’s more I just love how the democratic decisions in the various member states keep being overruled. I want people who are unelected to overrule the will of the people. It gives me a warm glow inside.

The biggest problem of all however is this. I have no feeling whatsoever for the EU. I might see it as advantageous to me economically, but I have no feeling of shared identity with other Europeans. The problem is no-one else does. Every country in the EU thinks only of its own national interest. It’s for this reason that the project keeps hitting trouble. Germans won’t share with Greeks, because they are not Germans. Everyone has their own national identity and this trumps a shared identity, because the shared identity simply does not exist. Europe is a continent. But identity is not about geography. I no more feel European than I feel like a citizen of the world. Does anyone feel Earthian? Does anyone feel European?

Almost none of us feel patriotism about the EU. It’s for this reason that the Pro EU campaign will have to be negative. It has no choice. But what did we learn during indyref? A positive, patriotic Pro Scotland campaign very nearly beat a negative Pro UK campaign. There were two things that saved the Pro UK campaign. One was that there is in Scotland patriotism about Britain. The second is that the Scottish nationalists ran a negative campaign about Britain and British patriotism.

If the Scottish nationalists had universally been polite, pleasant and positive not only about Scotland but also about Britain and being British, they might well have won. But instead far too many Scottish nationalists came across as obsessives. Far too many were rude and full of hatred. Every time a Scottish nationalist said something insulting about British history or British institutions, they hurt their own cause and helped ours. The mobs surrounding Jim Murphy or demonstrating outside the BBC were what saved the UK. I wouldn’t have voted for independence even if I had wanted it, because I would not have wanted to be associated with those who did.

The lesson is also clear with regard to the EU referendum. People like Nigel Farage are a huge turn off to most people who are undecided. Most UK voters don’t want to associate themselves with obsessives who say nasty things about immigrants. Most of us can see plusses and minuses about immigration. But above all we don’t want to be nasty about our neighbours or those we meet on the bus. The tendency of UKIP to say horrible things about the EU hurts the campaign to leave. A period of silence on the other hand would be most helpful.

The advantage that those who want to leave the EU have is that it is possible for this campaign to be positive in the same way that the Scottish independence campaign could be positive. If it accepts that leaving the EU might involve difficulties, but that with effort these could be overcome, it can use the feelings that most people have about Britain in contrast to the lack of feeling that most people have about the EU. Crucially this also depends on such a campaign being neither overly negative about the EU, nor at all negative about Europe. It is not anti-European not to want to be ruled by Brussels, just as it is not anti-North American for a Canadian not to want to be ruled from Washington. I’m sure Mr Carney would agree.

A positive Pro UK campaign could moreover be the one thing that might change things around in Scotland. The SNP like to give the impression that the UK’s voting to leave the EU makes Scottish independence more likely. Far from it. It’s the existence of the EU that makes sub-nation nationalism possible. I’m still weighing up the pros and cons about the EU, but one of the biggest pros is it makes Scottish independence far less likely.

This article was originally published by the author on her personal blog on 31 October 2015.  http://effiedeans.blogspot.com/2015/10/failing-to-learn-lessons-of-indyref.html

About Effie Deans

Profile photo of Effie Deans
Effie Deans is a pro UK blogger who works at the University of Aberdeen. She spent many years living in Russia and the Soviet Union, but came home to Scotland so as to enjoy living in a multi-party democracy! When not occupied with Scottish politics she writes fiction and thinks about theology, philosophy and Russian literature.

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