I think it’s quite likely the next independence referendum will happen sooner rather than later, so it’s important to have a look at what we could have done better, not in order to point fingers at anybody, but simply to make sure that we win next time. This is the third of several indyref postmortems.
One thing I didn’t really understand during the indyref campaign was why EU citizens were largely ignored by the Yes campaign.
I do realise some leaflets were produced in Polish and possibly other EU languages, but most EU citizens living in Scotland speak English fluently, so what was missing wasn’t really materials in other languages, but answering the specific concerns shared by EU citizens in Scotland, such as the following:
- Would they be forced to leave Scotland if the EU terminated Scotland’s membership after a Yes vote, as the Unionists were often warning the EU would?
- Would the non-discrimination of EU citizens continue without change after independence? In particular, would they be continue to be able to work, to access the NHS, to vote in Scottish Parliament elections, and so on?
- Would it be easy to become a Scottish citizen after independence?
The last question was answered unequivocally — it would be rather hard, much harder than for British citizens living in Scotland. However, the first two items weren’t addressed very clearly.
It would have been very easy for the Scottish Government to issue some clear plans to reassure all EU citizens. However, this didn’t really happen — there were some promising clauses hidden in the draft constitution and other places, but it was all too hidden to be of much use in the campaign.
It’s really rather sad, because most EU citizens were fundamentally sympathetic to getting away from the Eurosceptic consensus that often seems to reign supreme in England — indeed, for many EU citizens here, the in/out referendum could lead to losing their jobs and being deported back to a country they haven’t lived in for many years.
I don’t know why the Scottish Government didn’t do more. I can think of a few possible explanations, but I don’t know whether they’re correct or not.
Firstly, I think there was an unwillingness to discuss the possibility of Scotland being thrown out of the EU — if the Scottish Government had said: “We guarantee your rights to live and work here even if Scotland is temporarily excluded from the EU”, they may have feared the Unionists would have used this as evidence they were right to raise doubts about Scotland’s continued EU membership.
Secondly, they may have wanted to keep their powder dry for the membership negotiations with the EU. If they had already guaranteed the rights of all EU citizens in Scotland, their negotiation position might have been seen to be weakened. However, as an EU citizen it’s not very attractive to vote to become a bargaining chip.
Thirdly, there might have been some disagreements within the Scottish Government about the right way forward, and this kept things vague.
Finally, I’m not sure many Scots really understood how scary the prospect of being chucked out of Scotland as an unfortunate side effect of the EU playing hardball was for EU citizens here. However, we’re so used to threatening and xenophobic language from many English politicans (especially from UKIP) that it’s easy to become somewhat paranoid.
Of course a large number of EU citizens (including myself) voted Yes enthusiastically in spite of all this, but a more proactive approach from the Scottish Government could have led to an almost unanimous backing for independence from these voters. In the end, No won the referendum by such a large margin that it didn’t really matter what the EU citizens voted, but nobody could have known this in advance.
(Much of this blog post might also apply to Commonwealth citizens in Scotland — I’m not sure. On the other hand, people from outwith the EU and the Commonwealth couldn’t vote in the independence referendum unless they had obtained British citizenship, so there wouldn’t have been a specific reason to appeal specifically to them in the campaign.)