How the Scottish National Party's likely triumph at the polls may impact on the UK's EU policy


Picture of Dr. Kirsty Hughes
Dr. Kirsty Hughes

Associate Fellow at Friends of Europe

With the UK’s general election on 7th May, it is looking highly likely that the Scottish National Party will displace the Lib-Dems as the UK’s third-biggest party, possibly winning almost all of Scotland’s 59 seats at Westminster (where today they hold only six seats, and Labour hold forty-one).

The SNP has campaigned not on independence but on an anti-austerity and ‘progressive’ ticket. In both Scotland and England, the debate has focused on domestic policy even though the Conservatives are committed to an EU referendum, if they win, that could lead to a potential ‘Brexit’.

With the SNP potentially holding the balance of power after 7th May – since neither the Tories nor Labour are expected to get anywhere near a majority – how might the SNP MPs impact on the UK’s approach to the EU?

Scotland and the EU

Humza Yousaf, Minister for Europe and International Development in the Scottish Government, says the campaign is going “phenomenally well in Scotland, as the polls and our own canvass results reflect”. He sees the “tectonic plates of Scottish politics shifting”.

Yousaf thinks that, in Scotland, “there is a more pro-European stance here”. There is much more outside interest in Scotland and its external policies, says Yousaf, with many more ambassadors and other visitors coming since the referendum, despite the ‘no’ vote.

Does Scotland at present have enough influence on British positions on key EU policies? “No, definitely not enough” says Yousaf. He explains there are quarterly joint ministerial meetings between the UK and Scotland on EU issues but “there isn’t enough discussion on policy formation…Smith [the Smith Commission Report which looked at further devolution post-referendum] left the door open a bit and said we would need to discuss more how to represent Scotland’s views on the global stage”. It’s a big issue that has been left hanging.

Yousaf complains strongly that even where Scotland has the most competent and experienced minister – for instance on fisheries – London will not let Scottish ministers speak for the UK in Brussels’ councils, pulling in unelected Lords or British diplomats instead when UK ministers are absent. Pressure for a more fair and rational approach for Scotland in the EU is likely to grow.

Scottish interests overlap with, but are not identical to, England’s. Scotland produces about 25% of the EU’s total wind energy, and has the most ambitious renewables targets in the EU. It has a greater focus on oil, food and drink, and fisheries amongst other areas, as well as its more anti-austerity and pro-EU attitudes, than England.

Asked about Greece’s struggles to escape austerity, Yousaf is sympathetic but cautious: “I don’t believe it is necessary for Greece to leave [the euro] for stability, any member leaving would be a disaster for the EU. I have faith they will find a manageable compromise’. He talks about Syriza having to “navigate” the promises they made to their voters to find a way to a compromise.

EU Referendum and ‘Brexit’ – only for England?

Humza Yousaf sees ‘Brexit’ as possible, if the Tories manage to put together an informal coalition after 7th May. Yousaf says “it [a referendum] is playing with fire, exit could have devastating consequences for the whole of the UK”.

But Yousaf is cautious about the impact of a possible ‘no’ vote on the push for Scottish independence if there is an EU in-out referendum: This election is not about another [independence] referendum….If Scotland voted to stay in the EU and the rest of the UK to leave and we were about to be dragged out against our will that might be a trigger, and people would say we would rather be an independent country and in Europe.”

Yousaf refers to Irish anxieties about a possible Brexit (given shared borders and other common interests) and obviously sees similar concerns potentially for Scotland. He thinks it is better for the whole of the UK to stay in the EU. There is a conundrum here since while an EU referendum with an English ‘no’ vote might be a positive catalyst for Scottish independence, it would in many ways be better for an independent Scotland if England too remained in the EU.

Asked who might be the main allies of a one-day independent Scotland in the EU, Yousaf says “primarily the [rest of the] UK would be a natural ally in the EU and Ireland, first and foremost, we would work closely with them, and yes with some of the Nordics – Sweden, Finland and Denmark.”

Yousaf says he is sure if they had won the Scottish referendum, Scotland would have stayed in the EU: “Brussels would have found a way, there is no doubt in my mind. The EU is a pragmatic organisation as it was when East Germany joined. We have been in for 40 years and our laws reflect the acquis, we have €100,000 citizens here in Scotland, 25% of EU wind energy….so you could imagine the practical problems if we weren’t in the EU for a day, the disruption.”

Most attention on SNP foreign policies has been on their aim of getting rid of Trident. Trident, says Yousaf, has no moral, political or economic purpose. But he goes on to emphasise “we are not a party of pacifists” and attacks the current government for not investing enough in conventional forces.

Migration is another issue where the SNP has positioned itself in a progressive position compared to the UK’s main parties. Yousaf talks of needing a ‘tier and points’ system for migration and insists migration is positive and necessary for Scotland given its aging population. Such an outlook may be helpful in the debate around free movement of labour in the EU, one that is likely to continue even under a Labour government to some extent.

The SNP’s role at Westminster – plenty to discuss

David Cameron has been attacking Labour for much of the election over the possibility that it might end up as a minority government supported by the SNP, a party committed to independence from the UK.

This attack, effectively on the legitimacy of SNP MPs voting at Westminster has gone down very badly in Scotland. “The anger”, says Yousaf, “is tangible. From six or seven months ago”, he goes on, “when Cameron was saying ‘you should not leave the UK’ to saying ‘your voice is illegitimate and you should have no say in a future government’….people are apoplectic, very angry”.

Ed Miliband has also shocked some on the left in England, by not only ruling out a formal coalition with the SNP, but even a so-called ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement. This suggests he thinks he can govern as a minority government, with some votes in support on key policies from the SNP, but without negotiating with them – this seems implausible.

Both Scottish and British politics look like being interesting indeed after the results come in on 7th May. The SNP will certainly be a key voice in many areas, even without a formal agreement, if there is a minority Labour government. And a Conservative coalition or more informal agreement with the Lib-Dems, Democratic Ulster Unionists and UKIP may find itself fracturing over an EU referendum – something the SNP would not support – so in a more unstable governing context, watching the SNP is now going to be a key part of following Britain’s politics.

An earlier version of this article was published in Open Democracy.

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