Having read the headline over Iain Macwhirter’s article in the Herald, I scoured what followed looking for some statement from Nicola Sturgeon quoted as evidence that the SNP is backing a “negative pro-EU campaign”. I wasn’t disappointed. But only because I knew better than to expect one. Instead of something – anything! – to justify the headline all we get is some wild imaginings about and “alliance” between Sturgeon and Tony Blair and the even more surreal notion of the First Minister putting her signature next that of David Cameron on a new version of the infamous “Vow”.
The important thing to remember here is that none of this is real. There is no Sturgeon/Blair “alliance”. There is no “Vow” with Nicola Sturgeon’s signature on it. There is no SNP backing for a “negative pro-EU campaign. None of this has actually happened. Having seen it in print, the more susceptible British nationalists will adopt it as fact. They can’t help themselves. The rest of us really need to avoid that kind of stupidity.
But this is not the limit of Iain Macwhirter’s imaginings. There’s the fiction that “the SNP has always held up Norway as the model for an independent Scotland”. In reality, independence supporters sometimes refer to certain aspects of Norway’s social and economic policy as examples which might inform possible alternatives available to an independent Scotland. See the difference?
Then we have possibly the most bizarre bit of Macwhirter whimsy with the suggestion that the SNP is “keen on relinquishing Scottish national sovereignty”. Underlying this daft comment is the inanely simplistic notion that the UK and the EU are the same. The atrociously shallow idea that, because they are both political unions, they must be identical. This is obvious nonsense. We don’t have to dig very deep at all to find an essential difference between the two in the way each treats the matter of sovereignty.
The EU is an association of nations founded on the defining principle of democracy – pooled sovereignty. That’s all democracy is. A pooling of our individual sovereignty so as to facilitate the governance which makes large and complex societies viable. Our individual sovereignty is not diminished by this pooling. Neither does membership of the EU involve any “relinquishing” of sovereignty.
Some will object that this democratic pooling of sovereignty is an ideal which is far from fully reflected in the institutions and procedures of the EU. But this refers organisational and structural failures which betray the founding principle, rather than evidence that this principle doesn’t exist or isn’t relevant. In the same way that denying an individual or group their due according to the principle of inalienable human rights does not negate those right, so the organisational defects and deficiencies of the EU do not alter or eradicate the principle of pooled sovereignty upon which this political union was founded.
The UK could hardly be more different. The political union between Scotland and England was not a pooling of sovereignty. It involved Scotland’s national sovereignty being subsumed into an entity which was effectively “Greater England”. It still is. But “Greater England” has now been re-branded as “Britain”. The concept of pooled sovereignty is anathema to the ruling elites of the British state now just as it was inconceivable to the predecessors of today’s ruling elites when they contrived the political union.
The EU is a bold, and in many regards successful experiment, in post-imperial international association founded on noble ideals of peaceful cooperation. For all its failings, it does a lot of the things it’s supposed to do passably well.
The UK is an archaic and self-evidently dysfunctional arrangement born of avarice and lust for power among a privileged few. For all its pompous posturing it serves none of the people of these islands any better than one would expect of a set-up devised in total disregard of their interests.
There is no contradiction in seeking to restore Scotland’s rightful constitutional status, and with it the popular sovereignty which the British state explicitly denies as it imposes the concept of parliamentary sovereignty, while accepting the pooled sovereignty of the EU. It is entirely reasonable to reject the idea that the people are subordinate to a ruling elite operating as the Crown in Parliament while embracing the idea of nations pooling sovereignty for mutual benefit.
It makes perfect sense that Scotland should aspire to the capacity to freely negotiate the terms on which it associates with other nations. A capacity which those other nations assume to be theirs as of right.
There inevitably will be a “Project Fear 2016”. But there is no more reason to suppose that the SNP will be part of this negative campaign than there is evidence that they are in Iain Macwhirter’s article. The fact that we are still waiting for the oft-promised but never delivered “positive case for the (UK) union” doesn’t mean we can’t make a positive case for remaining in the EU.
The difference between a negative and a positive campaign lies in the fact that the latter offers an alternative. A positive campaign is not one which totally eschews pointing out potential negative implications. It is a campaign in which the negative implications being highlighted are both realistic and, crucially, weighed against positive arguments.
The SNP would be derelict in its duty if it failed to inform people of the potential detriment to Scotland of withdrawal from the EU. It would be irresponsible not to point out the flaws and fallacies in the anti-EU propaganda that will saturate much of the media. That is not problematic, and does not qualify as negative campaigning, so long as it avoids the dishonest, fantastical, sensationalised doom-mongering of the anti-independence campaign. And so long as it is accompanied by an honest and pragmatic assessment of what Scotland gains from being part of the EU.
It would be extremely foolish to assume that the SNP had not learned lessons from the first referendum campaign and the all too frequently appalling behaviour of unionists. I hadn’t taken Iain Macwhirter for such a fool.