‘The “European question” in post-war Scottish politics’

Published on: Author: CSCS 2 Comments

On 28 October 2014, the Centre welcomed David Stewart to discuss ‘The “European question” in post-war Scottish politics’, continuing the ‘Scotland and Europe’ series. Below is this listener’s brief summary of the lecture.

At the third-time of asking, the UK joined the EEC (European Economic Community) in 1973. Membership had been blocked by the ‘immovable block’ of Charles de Gaulle who doubted the UK’s desire to join the community. In this early phase, a rising tide of Euro-scepticism was found in the major Scottish political parties.

Apart from the Conservatives, who were extremely supportive of the EEC in the early years, firmly believing the common-market would be a major boon for the UK economy.

In contrast, Labour were ‘bitterly divided’, with some of the left of the party viewing the EEC as a ‘capitalist business club’ that had no interest in the working class. Willie Ross was opposed as he feared membership would damage British sovereignty and confine attempts to absorb regional spending from Westminster. Others, like J.P. Mackintosh, were more upbeat, and hoped it would be a conduit for social and democratic renewal, bringing forth new ideas from the continent and bolstering regional aid.

The SNP were initially supportive, arguing that Scotland was a historic nation that deserved representation in Europe, and they also believed it would provide a counter-balance to Westminster power. However, they began to exhibit more Euro-scepticism as the years progressed, partly to sow division within the Labour ranks.

In 1975, Harold Wilson unexpectedly produced a nationwide referendum on EEC membership. It was anticipated that Scotland would decisively vote No to leave the EEC, but the national press was overwhelming in favour of the ‘Yes’ vote, perhaps turning the tide. Another factor was the ‘appalling organisation’ of the ‘No’ campaign, largely led by Labour. Ultimately, Scotland voted 58% Yes/ 42% No, making Scotland the most Euro-sceptic place area of the UK; in fact, the only places in the UK to vote No were the Western Isles and Shetland. While the No camp was defeated, there was still clearly a great deal of Euro-scepticism in Scotland at this time.

The 1975 'Yes' campaign
The 1975 ‘Yes’ campaign

After the referendum, Labour became even more hard-line, even voting against direct elections to the EEC. By 1982, 54% of Scots believed the UK should withdraw from the EEC. These attitudes were influenced by the rapid de-industrialisation of the Central Belt, which was partly blamed on EEC membership.

Devolution was seen as a distraction from the European question, but by 1983/4 the parties had begun to bridge that disconnect. The SNP began to support EEC membership, having witnessed through Winnie Ewing (who became known as Madame Écosse) the benefits of involvement. The Tories, once the champions of the EEC, became the most ardent critics of membership, especially Margaret Thatcher (typified by her famous speech in Bruges). In contrast, the left-wing had shifted full-circle, hoping increased integration in Europe would regenerate de-industrialised Scotland and open up more constitutional options.

This period saw the reactive realignment of mainstream Scottish politics as the centre-left came to support involvement in Europe, while the Tories were pushed to the fringes through their extreme scepticism of both Europe and devolution. By 1994, both Labour and the SNP inhabited a middle-ground on Europe that reflected the social-democratic consensus.

Summary by Ross Crawford (PhD Researcher)

Our series continues on Tuesday 4 November with the launch of the Database of Scottish Hagiotoponyms [DOSH]. This will be held in Room 202, 3 University Gardens at 5.30pm. All welcome.

The ‘Scotland and Europe’ series continues the following week, Tuesday 11 November, with Amy Eberlin and Morvern French, ‘Scotland and the Flemish Peoples Project: Analysing International interactions in the Middle Ages’.

2 Responses to ‘The “European question” in post-war Scottish politics’ Comments (RSS) Comments (RSS)

  1. Welcome this discussion of Scotland in Europe but surprised not to see Liberal/LibDems who have been committed to EU membership even when it has nit been a popular stance in UK politics especially through Charles Kennedy’s role in European Movement.

    • Hi Duncan, the speaker did mention the Liberal Democrats, but argued they were (largely) a marginal voice in the overall debate. Apologies for not including this detail in the summary.

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