Malcolm Petrie on Scottish politics and the European question

This week, the Centre welcomed Malcolm Petrie, a former Early Career Fellow here at Edinburgh and now a lecturer in Modern History at the University of St Andrews. After a truly global year of talks and events, his discussion of Scottish politics and the European question brought us much closer to home. Calum Aikman sends this report.

Campaign material for the 1975 referendum on UK membership of the European Economic Community

The main focus of Malcolm’s paper was the hostility of the Scottish National Party (SNP) to the attempts by successive British governments to enter the European Economic Community (EEC) in the 1960s and early 1970s, and the positive impact this stance had on the party’s overall prospects.

Coming at a moment when the governing unionist tradition was already under severe strain, many historians have concentrated on the effects of several prevailing structural factors – most notably the discovery of oil fields in the North Sea and Britain’s comparatively poor economic performance – to explain the SNP’s upturn in fortunes during this period. But Malcolm argued that opposition to ‘Europe’ provided an equally important rallying point for the party: not only were its leading figures able to portray EEC membership as a ruse that would leave the Scottish people still further from the centre of power (on ‘the periphery of the periphery’, as a contemporary slogan would have it), but the subsequent campaign for a referendum on the issue helped return attention to the question of what Scotland’s constitutional status within the United Kingdom should be.

The position of the SNP, Malcolm contended, was initially characterised by pragmatism as much as by principle. Having welcomed the Treaty of Rome when it was signed in 1957, the party’s instincts began to shift away from pro-Europeanism towards the end of the following decade. During a by-election in Hamilton in 1967 the victorious Nationalist candidate, Winnie Ewing, repeatedly highlighted her opposition to integration with Europe, describing it as akin to ‘national suicide’.

That same year, Gordon Wilson, a future leader of the party, urged a ‘hard, intransigent attitude’ towards the EEC, citing the loss of nationhood and sovereignty that membership would entail together with a more esoteric claim that entry would contravene the terms of the 1707 Act of Union. In 1970 the leadership, with a keen eye for publicity stunts, sent a delegation to Brussels to let the European Commission know what it thought about their project, and in the General Election that followed soon after the SNP ran on an unambiguously anti-EEC platform. At a time when both the Labour and Conservative parties were theoretically committed to joining (despite significant opposition among their respective memberships), this was a distinctive policy that generated enthusiasm from within a somewhat Euro-sceptical public.

Malcolm suggested, however, that this was far from the whole story. While the party’s antipathy to Europe was at times motivated by tactical opportunism, what really catalysed such feeling was an underlying populist, anti-establishment spirit. This emerged in the rhetoric of William Wolfe, leader from 1970 to 1979, whose antagonism towards the overmighty state, whether it was located in London or Brussels, drove him to advocate the twin measures of localism and decentralisation as a suitable antidote.

Another prominent Nationalist, Dr Robert McIntyre, made similar arguments by suggesting that only an independent Scotland outside of the EEC could properly enshrine human values, thereby echoing the ‘small is beautiful’ concept then being popularised by E. F. Schumacher. Such doctrines are often associated with the political Right, and Malcolm noted that the party performed particularly well in areas, such as the North-East of Scotland, where the Tories had traditionally been dominant. But the SNP also used their opposition to a remote European bureaucracy as a means of transcending the binary political divide: at a senior level the policy attracted support from libertarian-minded socialists on the Left as well as the anti-statists of the Right.

The party’s strident defence of the right to self-determination soon found an outlet in the campaign for a national referendum on the European question. First articulated in 1970 by the anti-EEC Labour politicians Douglas Jay and Tony Benn, the idea to place the decision ‘before the people’ gained significant traction throughout Britain during the following year, when the vote to join the EEC was passed in the House of Commons with much rancour on both sides. In Scotland, a poll suggested that 75 per cent of the public supported the concept.

For the SNP, which unlike the two major parties was united in its refusal to support entry, this was too good an opportunity to miss. Over the next four years the party used the referendum campaign to develop its own perspective. Arguing – as other anti-EEC politicians also did – that no government can surrender common privileges without popular consent, the SNP’s leaders went further by suggesting that, as there was no provision in place for member states to leave the EEC, entry would effectively freeze Scotland inside the confines of the British state for good. A Declaration of Rights was therefore proclaimed, and Wilson wrote to the sitting President of the European Commission, François-Xavier Ortoli, to defend the unique nature of Scotland’s constitutional framework.

Malcolm pointed out that the focus of Nationalists on these issues successfully diverted attention away from economics, and played on existing discontent with the political system. Despite this, when the EEC referendum was finally staged in 1975 it proved to be something of a disappointment for the SNP. Although there had long been a widespread perception that the British public were not keen on joining the EEC, once the decision was made and entry officially ratified (on 1 January 1973) there was an equally strong feeling that membership was now a fait accompli that could no longer be resisted.

The result was a majority in all four nations for staying in; but with a ‘Yes’ vote at just 58 per cent and a comparatively low turnout, it was Scotland that seemed the least enthusiastic about the decision. Malcolm wondered if voter apathy indicated an even higher level of opposition than has been assumed; more importantly, he argued that the precedent set by the referendum was useful to the SNP in the long run, as it led to further referendums – including one on the establishment of a Scottish Assembly in 1979 – and entrenched notions of popular sovereignty in  British political debate, to the extent that it is now taken for granted that the union itself can be dissolved constitutionally.

Summarising Malcolm’s paper,  Ewen Cameron (Edinburgh) pointed out its value in reminding us of the difficult relationship that has long existed between Scottish nationalism and the idea of ‘Europe’, contrary to the common belief that Scotland as a whole has a settled tendency to be pro-European. He felt this to be particularly important when considering Winnie Ewing – whose anti-EEC propaganda in Hamilton perhaps belies her subsequent ‘internationalist’ reputation as ‘Madame Ecosse’ – and argued that greater distinction should thus be made between internationalism in Scotland and the narrower specificity of the European question.

Ewen also noted that the SNP’s anti-statist rhetoric, and its ability to use it to promote a particular view of Scottish identity, was reminiscent of the political formula that the Tories had earlier deployed to ensure their own political success in Scotland. A lengthy – and at times quite lively – discussion then ensued, with questions raised concerning the pre-eminence of pragmatism over ideology in determining the SNP’s actions, the position of the few pro-Europeans inside the party, and the need for an examination of historically Liberal areas vis-à-vis Nationalist strongholds in the context of the referendum result.

Calum Aikman is a PhD student in History. His research mostly focuses on twentieth-century British and Scottish politics, trade union history, and the fortunes of the Labour Party in the post-war era. His thesis is on the political thought of the Labour Party’s ‘revisionist’ right wing in the 1970s. He is a member of the CSMCH steering committee.