Scotland bangs the drum for Europe

GLASGOW — As hundreds of people gathered outside the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh last week, there were flags of every European Union state, in a sea of Scottish Saltires. “Scotland loves Europe,” declared one placard. “Don’t EU want me baby,” read another.

“We want to find a way to respect the democratic mandate for the people of Scotland to stay in the EU,” said Sarah Beattie-Smith, a Scottish Greens activist. “We want to explore every possible option for how to stay in the European Union. Of course, that includes independence.”

And as a piper played at the “Keep Scotland in Europe” rally, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon was hundreds of miles away in Brussels, trying to make the case for Scotland to remain in the European Union.

There was sympathy for the Scottish National party (SNP) leader in Europe’s political capital after Scots voted by a large margin to stay in the EU — but little concrete support for her desire to see Scotland retain EU membership even as the U.K. heads for the exit door.

Both French and Spanish prime ministers made clear their opposition to Scotland retaining EU membership.

Ahead of their meeting Wednesday, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said that while Sturgeon had “won the right to be heard in Brussels,” he did not intend “to interfere in an inner British process.”

European Parliament President Martin Schulz said he had “listened carefully and learned a lot” from his conference with the Scottish first minister. But European Council President Donald Tusk turned down Sturgeon’s request for a meeting.

The reception from EU heads of state was equally mixed. Irish premier Enda Kenny made an unexpected intervention at the European Council “on behalf” of the Scottish first minister.

Both French and Spanish prime ministers made clear their opposition to Scotland retaining EU membership.

The options available to the Scottish nationalist government are uncertain. The parliament in Edinburgh, contrary to reports, cannot veto Brexit.

“If the United Kingdom leaves … Scotland leaves,” said Spanish acting Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, who has separatist forces of his own to contend with in Catalonia.

In an interview published Saturday, German Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel toldGerman newspaper Neue Osnabruecker Zeitung that the EU would certainly accept Scotland as a member in its own right if it were to leave the U.K. and move to join the Union.

Despite the flurry of diplomatic activity — and the standing ovation SNP’s Alyn Smith won in the European Parliament when he begged his fellow MEPs to not “let Scotland down” — the course Sturgeon is pursuing is far from clear, and largely without precedent.

Sturgeon has formed a council of prominent experts to advise the Scottish government “on how best to achieve our EU objectives.” The group is far from a nationalist sock puppet. Members include former judge at the European Court of Justice Sir David Edward, economist John Kay, and Labour MEP David Martin.

But what options are actually available to the Scottish nationalist government are uncertain. The parliament in Edinburgh, contrary to reports, cannot veto Brexit. Westminster remains sovereign and can sign the exit triggering Article 50 on behalf of the U.K.

The main possibility discussed in Scottish circles would be for the U.K. to stay in the EU, but stipulate that European legislation apply only in Scotland (and possibly Northern Ireland, which also voted to remain). The option was floated as a “reverse Greenland,” a nod to the large Arctic territory that chose to sit outside the European Union but still remains part of Denmark, an EU member.

But such a settlement could prove practically and politically impossible. Scotland represents barely an eighth of the U.K.’s population. It is hard to imagine Westminster politicians, fresh out of a divisive Brexit campaign, choosing to remain in the EU to placate Scottish nationalist demands.

Experts warn that a bespoke Scottish settlement is unlikely. “I don’t see how Scotland could get a significantly different deal from the rest of the U.K.,” said James Mitchell, professor of politics at Edinburgh University. “The big question for all of us will be around free movement. While Scotland wants free movement, elsewhere in the U.K. this is clearly not wanted.”

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If Scotland is not able to secure a deal to remain in the EU, the issue of independence is destined to return. The terrain has changed since Scots voted by 10 points to stay in the United Kingdom in 2014.

The SNP campaigned to remain in the EU — and few doubt Sturgeon wants Scotland in Europe — but Brexit has damaged her opposition. The alliance between Scottish Labour and the Conservatives that emerged victorious last time out has frayed, probably beyond repair.

During an at times bad-tempered emergency debate in the Edinburgh parliament last week, Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson accused the SNP of using the Brexit vote to push for independence. But her opposite number, Scottish Labour’s Kezia Dugdale, agreed with a nationalist motion to explore “all options” to keep Scotland in the EU and condemned the Conservatives for holding the referendum “to resolve an ego contest in the Tory party.”

Davidson was rightly lauded for reviving the seemingly moribund Scottish Toriesand leading the party to second place in the May elections. But she has appeared ill at ease since last week’s vote, unsure of whether or not to argue for a separate deal for Scotland that could help to secure its place in the United Kingdom.

Labour, long the dominant force in Scottish politics, is in turmoil. The party is cash-strapped and weary. Sources privately admit the party would take a much softer line on leaving the U.K. in any future vote. On Sunday, former Labour first minister Henry McLeish said Scottish independence was “something I could now vote for.”

Scottish nationalists, however, would not be guaranteed to win a second referendum, at least not at present.

Support for ending the three-centuries-old union with England has risen in opinion polls taken since the Brexit vote. But the energy unleashed by the referendum could trail off, especially if the U.K. negotiates a deal that looks more like Norway’s agreement than a full-blooded clamp down on free movement.

Economic issues that dogged the Yes campaign in 2014 have not been resolved (although JP Morgan has given its imprimatur to a new post-independence Scottish currency.) Much of the Scottish electorate is fatigued after four national votes in less than two years.

Despite her forceful role since the Brexit vote, Nicola Sturgeon is by nature a cautious politician. The nationalist leader will only go to the polls when she feels confident of victory.

“If the SNP go for a second independence referendum then they have to win it,” said Alistair Clark, senior lecturer in politics at Newcastle University.

While Brexit is being negotiated, Sturgeon will have to maneuver her way through a political storm that is beyond her control.

The European Union would weigh on voters in a different way in a new referendum on Scottish reference. In 2014, Scots were warned that if they left the U.K. their place in the EU could be under threat. That looks far less likely now.

“The EU historically always has been remarkably flexible,” said James Mitchell. During the last independence referendum, EU member countries were fearful of interfering in British internal politics.

“Now the thinking in places like Berlin, Brussels and Paris is the U.K. is no longer a member so what is the problem if Scotland wants to become independent,” says Mitchell.

Talk of another referendum could yet prove premature. What Brexit will look like in practice remains to be seen. Meanwhile, Sturgeon will have to maneuver her way through a political storm that is beyond her control.

“She is going to have to be very fleet of foot and nimble, and at the end of the day circumstances might work against her,” said Mitchell. “[But] what’s she is doing is building relationships that could be useful in the future.”

This piece originally appeared on Politico Europe.

Britain’s last communist

Councillor Willie Clarke …
Councillor Willie Clarke … Photograph: DC Thomson & Co Ltd

Clarke is the only self-described communist holding elected office anywhere in the UK. Although now technically an independent, Clarke has for more than 40 years sat as a communist councillor for Ballingry, a former mining town of pebbledashed terrace houses laid out on the escarpment of Benarty Hill near Cowdenbeath in Fife. The craggy-faced septuagenarian’s politics have survived the fall of the Berlin Wall, the break-up of the Soviet Union and the loss of his left ear to cancer. “I am still a communist. My beliefs haven’t changed,” the former miner says as his small grey Renault Clio trundles through the pit villages ribboned along the low hills of central Scotland.

Cowdenbeath was once the centre of the Britain’s largest mining enterprise, the Fife Coal Company. For decades, the most serious threat to Labour’s electoral supremacy here came not from Scottish nationalists, but the communists. West Fife returned Britain’s last Communist party MP, Willie Gallacher, between 1935 and 1950. A housing estate on the outskirts of Cowdenbeath with a street called Gagarin Way is nicknamed “little Moscow”.

The Communist Party of Great Britain soon declined from its postwar peak of 50,000 members and over 200 councillors. But in West Fife “the Party” remained a political force. In 1973, the Communists won 12 seats on the then Lochgelly and Cowdenbeath council. Clarke was among those elected. There is footage of him during that election night. The Communist candidate looks tired, his tie askew, his face puffy and red. But he smiles and receives the interviewer’s congratulations on his unexpected victory over the Labour incumbent in a firm, bass-heavy voice that had by then already become a fixture at miners’ rallies.

Two days after his election, Clarke received a phone call. He had to come to the Seafield Colliery right away. A roof in a steeply inclined coalface beneath the Firth of Forth had collapsed. Five miners were dead. It took rescue workers a week to reach the last three bodies. “You were away up here. And then bang, you were back to reality.” Clarke lifts his right arm in the air. The sleeve of his jumper falls away slightly to reveal a thin, bright blue scar caused by trapped coal dust in a five-decade-old wound from his own stint in the mines.

Clarke began working in the pit at 14. His first job was separating stone from coal on the surface for 40p a shift. He soon joined the Communists. “I was always rebellious. Always asking, ‘why?’. ‘Why should that happen? Why has that not happened? [The Communists] caught your imagination. They were radical, wanted change, they were not prepared to accept things as they were.”

Clarke grew up in an unconventional home. His mother was a young, unmarried domestic servant when she became pregnant. In school, classmates would tease: ‘Who is your father?’ The Clarke house, like many in the area, had a subscription to the Daily Worker and during the war his uncle, also a miner, collected short paperback biographies of Russian generals and pinned up two maps of Europe on the wall so that he and his nephew could mark the progress of the allied and axis forces.

Clarke’s uncle died in 1947. That same year, the coal industry was nationalised. Its future seemed as steadfast and dependable as the hard Fife soil on which it rested. In 1957, the Queen travelled to the Fife town of Glenrothes to open a new colliery. Mining seemed in rude health but, beneath the surface, the ground was starting to shift.

The Glenrothes colliery was a failure, and by the time it shut the following decade, mines across Scotland were being closed. In 1973, the National Union of Mineworkers declared a work-to-rule. By then most of the pits in Fife were closed. Nevertheless, Clarke and his colleague kept the communist faith.

Clarke still speaks fondly of weeks spent in Moscow at the height of the cold war. Denunciations of the Soviet Union, he maintains, were motivated by anti-communism, not a desire to shed light on repression. “They just wanted to attack it. We saw the Soviet Union as the vanguard of the working classes of the whole world.” Today, the material conditions that sustained Fife’s pit villages – and its communists – are gone. Clarke is able to win votes not because of his belief in a new socialist order but because of his tireless work for the local community.

Willie Clarke and Gordon Brown at an official event in 2012.

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Willie Clarke and Gordon Brown at an official event in 2012. Photograph: Fife Council/Fife council

“People like Willie, he’s a great guy and he gets things done,” says Michael Payne, who works at the Benarty community centre in Ballingry. The Benarty centre is, in part, a testimony to the ageing communist’s political effectiveness. Clarke was instrumental in securing funding for the state-of-the-art facility that replaced a series of disparate, often dilapidated facilities dotted across the pit villages.

As we sit in the centre’s cafe before one of Clarke’s weekly constituency meetings a mobility scooter silently sidles up to our table. An elderly woman in a heavy coat complains that her front door was so stiff she could barely open it. Clarke nods. He takes out a scrap of paper and a small, stubby bookmaker’s pen. (He likes a bet on the horses.) “Leave it with me, I’ll get it sorted.”

Later Clarke takes me to a picturesque lakeside park built on what was the former dump for the pits. “The Meedies” was once the largest land reclamation scheme in Europe. Now it is Fife’s most popular tourist attraction. A group of teenagers on mountain bikes cycle across what had been a rail line for coal wagons. The white wooden frame of the old pit shaft peeks out behind a smattering of trees and brambles. When the park was built many locals wanted all traces of the mines removed. Clarke successfully lobbied for the shaft to remain: “Now if you tried to take it away there’d be a revolution.”

Clarke has not lost hope of a communist insurrection, but these days his main political goal is probably more achievable: Scottish independence. In the months leading up to September’s referendum he worked flat out facilitating meetings and debates, organising canvasses and leaflet drops. “Independence will come, whether it comes now or in 20 years. It’s like the tide you cannot hold it back, it’s going to happen. People will have to look at what is going to provide a fairer society, and it’s certainly not the capitalist system.”

This piece originally appeared in the print Guardian.

How would an indyref Yes affect Northern Ireland?

Would Northern Ireland “end up like West Pakistan” if Scotland says “yes” in September? Could Scottish independence presage a return to the Troubles? These are just some of the concerns being voiced by Unionist leaders in Northern Ireland ahead of the upcoming referendum.

Protestants in Ulster have long celebrated their links with Scotland, so the prospect of Scotland leaving the Union has provoked a bout of soul-searching for some across the Irish Sea.

Earlier this month, Ian Paisley junior, Democratic Unionist MP for North Antrim, said that Scottish independence would embolden dissident Irish republicans, leading to violence on the streets of Northern Ireland.

Previously, former Ulster Unionist Party leader, Reg Empey, had said that if Scotland voted for independence, Northern Ireland would “end up like West Pakistan”, with “a foreign country on one side of us and a foreign country on the other side of us”.

In 2012, Tom Elliot, Lord Empey’s successor as party leader, described the SNP as “a greater threat to the Union than the violence of the IRA”.

Although the Good Friday Agreement guarantees that Northern Ireland’s constitutional status can only be changed by a majority vote in the province, some Unionists are deeply concerned that the success of Scottish nationalism could see a clamour for a “border poll” on Irish unification.

The union flag flying at Belfast City HallMike Nesbitt, current leader of the Ulster Unionist party, told The Sunday Herald: “For unionism having seen off Irish republicanism after half a century there is a fear of being undone by Scottish nationalism in the 21st century.”

Nesbitt rejects the suggestion that Scottish independence could lead to a return to violence in Northern Ireland, but says that September’s referendum, regardless of the result, will “politically recalibrate the United Kingdom”. He added: “Even if Scotland says no to independence there is bound to be this push towards devo max and that will obviously have implications for Northern Ireland. Even Unionists whose political inclination is parity recognise that there economic arguments for breaking parity in areas such as corporation tax and air passenger duty.”

But many Unionists are wary of any change to the status quo. The Democratic Unionist Party is the largest party in the devolved Stormont administration, but a significant minority of Protestants remains deeply opposed to power-sharing with Sinn Fein republicans.

Protestants are no longer an absolute majority in Northern Ireland, according to census figures released at the end of 2012. The flag protests that broke out over the removal of the Union flag from City Hall around the same time, and ongoing disturbances around Orange Order parades, have contributed to a siege mentality in loyalist communities and an existential crisis within Unionism itself.

“Unionists don’t know who the hell they are and it’s part of their ongoing dilemma,” says Alex Kane, a columnist for the Belfast Telegraph and a leading unionist commentator in the city.

Former Northern Irish first minister and the architect of the Good Friday deal, Lord David Trimble, believes that Scottish independence could re-open the constitutional question in Northern Ireland. “If there was a Yes vote a lot of people would have to sit up and think and that opens up something,” Trimble told the Sunday Herald.

“(Irish) republicans would get excited and say, ‘It can be done’. Then there is a question, does their getting excited cause a problem? ‘Probably’ is the answer to that.”

Trimble says, however, that the vast majority of Unionists in Northern Ireland are confident that there will be a ‘no’ vote in Scotland.

“Alex Salmond’s main hope for success has always been to rile the English; to get the English riled and to use that to say to the Scots, ‘Look, they hate you, they want rid of you’. It’s a deeply cynical ploy but it has been obvious,” the former Ulster Unionist Party leader said.

Wary of negative headlines in Scotland and the religious dynamic, Irish republicans have been reticent on the question of September’s referendum. But former Sinn Fein director of publicity, Danny Morrison, says independence would have “a psychological effect” on Ulster Unionists.

“The majority Protestant community in the north is Presbyterian, not Anglican, and they identify their roots with dissenters from Scotland,” he says. “Their forebears would be leaving the Union that they hold so dear in the north of Ireland.”

But Morrison does not believe Scottish independence would be a game-changer in Northern Ireland. “Obviously, as an Irish republican I do express a little bit of schadenfreude at them all being upset at the old Union being broken up but does it bring Irish unity closer? No it doesn’t.”

Kane agrees, but for very different reasons, saying: “Sinn Fein have tried to play this bogeyman. ‘When the Scots go, you’re next’, but they don’t understand that a lot of nationalists – with a soft ‘n’ – are going to say, we don’t want (unification), that’s only going to cause far more problems than it’s worth.”

Although ahead in the polls, the No camp in Scotland has been accused of failing to articulate a positive vision of Unionism. Nesbitt says that the independence referendum should be seen as opportunity to “redefine in a more modern way what the union means”.

“We have to redefine ourselves. Look at the 2012 Olympics, where you have a guy born in Somalia, whose religion is Muslim, whose forename is Mohamed, who very joyfully wraps himself in the Union flag,” says Nesbitt. “That’s a very different thing from what we called Britishness in 1914.”

But James Mitchell, professor of politics at Edinburgh university, warns that attempts to create a pan-UK Unionist identity are fraught with danger. “Unionisms [across the UK] are very different,” he says. “There are clearly common parts to these Unionisms but there are also differences. Any attempt to forge a common Unionism across the UK will fail, it can’t happen.”

He rejects the idea that independence would lead to a significant change in the relationship between Scotland and Northern Ireland, with which it has had strong cultural links for hundreds of years. “The key relationships are personal, social, family – and I don’t think these need be disrupted at all,” Mitchell says. There is a referendum on the horizon that Northern Irish leaders should be worried about, he says, but it is not the one in Scotland.

“The European aspect is far more important than the Scottish referendum. If Scotland voted for independence and stayed in the EU and the rest of the UK was then to vote to withdraw from Europe that would put Northern Ireland in a very difficult position,” he says.

“You’d have the south [of Ireland] within the EU and Scotland within the EU. That is the most frightening thing from Northern Ireland’s point of view.”

This piece originally appeared in the Sunday Herald, February 2, 2014.