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  • February 24th, 2016 by
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    David Cameron has fired the starting gun for an in-out referendum on the UK’s EU membership by announcing the date that we will head to the polls – 23rd June. Shortly after his announcement, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon declared that a Brexit would “almost certainly” trigger a new vote on Scottish independence because “it would be best for Scotland to be in the EU as an independent member state,” rather than join the rest of the UK in a hypothetical exit.

    Aside from the not-so-subtle opportunism involved in resurrecting the Scottish independence campaign, Sturgeon’s comments revealed an intriguing tension. She spoke of Scottish separatism, facilitated by closer union with Europe; independence delivered through closer contractual union with the world’s largest organisation.

    What’s behind the nationalist movement that allows it to accommodate such a psychological paradox? It leans against the increasing trend of countries electing nationalist parties concurrently with developing a deep distaste for the supposedly dictatorial terms of EU membership: Greece, Hungary Poland, and of course Britain (or England, at least) have all railed against the terms of membership in the last few years, while ramping up the nationalist rhetoric. Is there, then, a bond that connects Scotland and the continent more strongly, strangely vaulting the English border and landing in Caledonia?

    There are some practical reasons behind Scotland’s warmth towards the EU. Its crucial whisky trade exports over a third of its produce to the EU – equivalent to about £1.25bn – and the Scotch Whisky Association Chief Executive David Frost has argued strongly in favour of EU membership. In other industries, too, Scotland benefits greatly from membership: it will receive roughly £33m from the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development and hundreds of millions more from structural funds. Last year the Scottish Government published a booklet entitled “The Benefits of Scotland’s EU Membership”, in which Fiona Hyslop MSP argued that Scotland owes 336,000 jobs, 46% of exports (roughly £13bn) and many billions besides in EU funding.

    However, at the heart of the argument is a sense that Scotland can at last find its own voice through closer integration with Europe. Although the SNP actually held an anti-EU stance during the 60s and 70s – campaigning against British accession to the European Community – it has since been a consistent supporter of EU membership. As per Sturgeon’s comments yesterday, the EU is viewed as a lever to further nationalist aspirations. The Scottish Government recently published “Scotland’s Action Plan for Engagement in Europe” – an explicit attempt to counter Euroscepticism, in which it emphasised the EU’s “cultural” benefits for Scotland, as much as the purely economic ones.

    It’s true that Scotland’s connection with Europe goes back a fair bit further, although even here a deep pragmatism was evident. As long ago as the 13th-Century, Scotland forged the “Auld Alliance “with France, a treaty between the two countries that was essentially designed to offer them each protection from England. A deal founded on the often-volatile philosophy of my enemy’s enemy is my friend, it nonetheless lasted. Indeed, in 1942, General Charles de Gaulle proclaimed the Franco-Scottish relationship the “oldest alliance in the world.”

    Perhaps we can read into this a deep-seated continentalism in Scotland’s outlook? More likely, however, Scotland simply sees Europe as a way out of the UK. Just as the Auld Alliance afforded protection from England, EU membership offers Scotland a stepping stone over England and towards the separation from the UK it craves.

    So the Scots’ connection to Europe is more an assertion of their own strength and independence than a genuine affinity. Their affiliation is borne out of pragmatism, much like the pragmatism shown by Nicola Sturgeon in her quickness to ring the Scottish independence alarm bells immediately in the wake of the EU referendum announcement.

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    It’s curious, though, that while England debates whether to leave the EU because its national sovereignty has been so eroded by the Brussels bureaucrats, Scotland sees the EU as a path to autonomy. However, could it be that herein lies the ultimate irony of the nationalist movement? Will we find a situation a few years from now where an independent Scotland, which had staked its all on the EU as a deliverer of its nationalistic goals, finds that like England its national identity has been subsumed by the European superstate?

    Of course you can always head to Boisdale and mull all the political news over your favourite tipple, in our wonderful relaxing atmosphere, we’d be delighted to see you.